Tag Archives: Mark Berndt

Dismissal bill falters in Assembly

With teachers and organized labor rallying against what they called an unnecessary attack on their rights, a bill that would make it easier to fire teachers and administrators accused of serious sexual and violent offenses against children failed to pass the Assembly Education Committee on Wednesday. Sen. Alex Padilla’s controversial SB 1530 will be dead for the session unless he can persuade one more Democrat to reverse positions within the next week .

The bill had bipartisan support in the Senate, where it passed 33-4, but, in a test of strength by the California Teachers Association, only one Democrat, Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley, and all four Republicans backed it in the crucial committee vote. The other six Democrats either voted buy clomid online against it (Tom Ammiano, San Francisco; Joan Buchanan, San Ramon) or didn’t vote (Betsy Butler, El Segundo; Wilmer Carter, Rialto; Mike Eng, Alhambra; and Das Williams, Santa Barbara).

The bill follows shocking incidents of sexual abuse in Los Angeles Unified and elsewhere, the worst of which involved Mark Berndt, 61, who’s been accused of 23 lewd acts against children at Miramonte Elementary in LAUSD. Padilla, a Democrat from Van Nuys, said SB 1530 responded to complaints from superintendents and school board members that it takes too long and is too expensive to fire teachers facing even the worst of charges. Rather than go through hearings and potential appeals, LAUSD paid Berndt $40,000, including legal fees, to drop the appeal of his firing.

Under current law, dismissal cases against teachers and administrators go before a three-person Commission on Professional Competence, which includes two teachers and buy amoxil online an administrative law judge. Its decision can be appealed in Superior Court.

Narrow band of ‘egregious’ cases

SB 1530 would have carved out a narrow band of exceptions applying to “egregious or serious” offenses by teachers and administrators involving drugs, sex, and violence against children. In those cases, the competence commission would be replaced by a hearing before an administrative law judge whose strictly advisory recommendation would go to the local school board for a final decision, appealable in court.

The bill also would have made admissible evidence of misconduct older than four years. Berndt had prior reports of abuse that had been removed from his file,  because a statute of limitations in the teachers contract in LAUSD prohibited their use.

School boards already have final say over dismissal of school employees other than teachers and administrators, so the bill would extend that to efforts to remove “a very creepy teacher” from the classroom,” as Oakley Union Elementary School District Superintendent Richard Rogers put it. “What is more fundamental than locally elected officials responsible for hiring and dismissal?” he asked.

The bill has the support of the administrators and school boards associations, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and the LAUSD president, Monica Garcia, who described her fellow board members as “seven union-friendly Democrats” who want to “get rid of people who will hurt our children.”

Current law works

But Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, countered that “SB 1530 solves nothing, places teachers at unfair risk, and diverts attention from the real accountability issues at LAUSD.” Turning the tables, Fletcher, CTA President Dean Vogel, and others have filed statements with the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing to investigate Superintendent John Deasy’s handling of misconduct allegations in the district.

The argument that current law works resonated with Buchanan, who served two decades on the San Ramon Valley School Board. Calling the bill “intellectually dishonest” because nothing can prevent another Miramonte from happening, she said, “We never had problems dismissing employees.” She acknowledged that the “long, expensive dismissal process” needs to be streamlined, but the bill doesn’t get it right. A teacher at a school in her legislative district was accused of sexual misconduct by a student who got a bad grade. That teacher “deserves due process.”

The two teachers on the Commission on Professional Competence provide professional judgment that’s needed to protect the rights of employees, said Patricia Rucker, a CTA lobbyist who’s also a State Board of Education member. “We do value the right to participate and adjudicate standards for holding teachers accountable,” she said.

Fletcher said that school boards would be subject to parental pressure in emotionally charged cases, and, as a policy body, should not be given judicial power. Assemblyman Ammiano, a former teacher, agreed. “A school board is not the one to make the decision,” he said.

Julia  Brownley said that she too was concerned about false charges against teachers but would support the bill, for it “will give districts tools” for rare circumstances. The bill would make the dismissal process more efficient and definitive. And she agreed with Padilla that the bill ensured due process for teachers, who’d be allowed to present their case, with witnesses, before an administrative judge and appeal an adverse decision to Superior Court.

Oakley Superintendent Richards said that the CTA misstated what SB 1530 does and “has taken such an extreme position on this issue that they have lost credibility.” The union’s real fear is that the bill will be “a nose under the camel’s tent” to change the dismissal process for all teachers. And that, he said, is unfounded.

Padilla was to have issued a statement last night on the setback in the committee but didn’t. Update: Padilla issued a statement this morning that reads, in part:  “SB 1530 was narrowly crafted to focus only on cases in which school employees are accused of sex, violence, or drug use with children. It is difficult to understand why anyone would oppose a measure to protect children. It is very disappointing.”

Teacher dismissal bill moves on

It will be easier and quicker to fire teachers in the most egregious misconduct cases, under a bill that the Senate passed Tuesday 33-4.

SB 1530, a response to a series of shocking abuse cases in Los Angeles Unified, would allow districts to suspend with pay teachers accused of sex, violence, or drug charges involving children and then speed up the process leading to a dismissal. A formal appeals process before the three-member Commission on Professional Competence would be replaced by an administrative law judge who’d issue a strictly advisory opinion to the local school board, which would have the final say.

The bill, authored by Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat from Los Angeles, will lead to a significant change in the legal process for a narrow range of misconduct cases. It will also allow districts to file dismissal charges during the summer – a quirk in the law favoring teachers – and will allow evidence more than four years old to be considered in dismissal cases. (Clarification: The bill applies not just to teachers but to all certificated personnel, including administrators.)

Had the bill already been a law, Los Angeles Unified could have handled Mark Berndt, 61, differently. He’s the teacher at Miramonte Elementary who’s been charged with 23 counts of lewd acts against children ages 7 to 10. Rather than go through an expensive and time-consuming appeals process, the district paid Berndt $40,000, including legal fees, to get him to drop the appeal of his firing.

The district had investigated complaints about Berndt dating back two decades but failed to substantiate them. Information about the complaints wasn’t in his file, because a clause in the district’s contract with United Teachers Los Angeles required that misconduct allegations that did not lead to action be expunged from a teacher’s file after four years.

In passing Padilla’s bill, the Senate beat back amendments proposed by Senator Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) that would have extended the provisions in Padilla’s bill to a broader range of misconduct cases. Huff pointed to  cases involving teachers who locked a student in a closet and made ethnic slurs and fun of a handicapped child, which, he told senators, would not have been covered by the Padilla bill. Huff accused Democrats who closed ranks behind Padilla’s bill of  choosing “to support union representatives at the expense of our children and the honorable teachers serving them.”

Earlier this month, the Senate Education Committee defeated Huff’s own bill, SB 1059, on teacher dismissal, which included the amendments that he introduced on Tuesday, as well as shortened the appeals process and gave school boards the final say for dismissing teachers for unsatisfactory performance – a sweeping change. Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy and a representative of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa testified for the bill, saying the current dismissal process can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers had opposed both bills, saying they eroded due process protections against false and unproven accusations.

Padilla said that teachers will retain the right to a hearing with witnesses and the right to appeal a decision to Superior Court.

Tightening teacher dismissals

It has taken a mess of lewd acts, criminal charges, and threatened lawsuits in Los Angeles Unified to spur calls for reforming the cumbersome process for dismissing teachers for immoral and unprofessional conduct.

Last week, LAUSD board members unanimously passed a resolution sponsored by board member Tamar Galatzan, who’s also a criminal prosecutor, calling for the Legislature to speed up state dismissal procedures (see item 16 of the board’s agenda). Democratic and Republican lawmakers, in turn, have been elbowing one another to be first in line with legislation that has yet to be filed.

Changes in statutes could fix some but not all parts of what has been a systemic failure to act on and follow up on credible evidence over many years.

Three former teachers at one LAUSD elementary school face criminal charges for sexually abusing students. One was fired last month after being charged with committing lewd acts on a 9-year-old in 2009. Another teacher, now a fugitive, was investigated for three cases of sexual misconduct against students before resigning from the district several years ago and being hired by Inglewood Unified, where he is now accused of molesting another young girl.

The most egregious case involved Miramonte Elementary third-grade teacher Mark Berndt, 61, who pleaded not guilty to lewd acts on children (for more explicit details, go here). The district investigated complaints about Berndt dating back two decades but failed to substantiate them. Information about the complaints wasn’t in Berndt’s file, because a clause in the district’s contract with United Teachers Los Angeles, negotiated in the ’90s, requires that misconduct allegations that did not lead to action be removed from a teacher’s file after four years.

Berndt was dismissed after the latest accusations surfaced in January 2011. In June 2011, the district agreed to pay him about $40,000, including legal fees, to drop the appeal of his firing. This type of settlement is common, not just in LAUSD, but in many districts, because appeals of dismissals to a three-person Commission on Professional Competence can take more than a year, during which time teachers continue to be paid, and the district can be liable for attorney’s fees if it loses the case.

For all three teachers, the district failed to notify the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which would have had the authority to pull the licenses of the teachers, whether or not they were convicted of a crime.

The resolution passed by the school board calls for changes in state law in cases involving unprofessional, criminal, or immoral conduct that would:

  • Discontinue paying a teacher during the appeals process;
  • End the prohibition on introducing personnel information involving charges of misconduct that is more than four years old. (This would preclude districts from negotiating away the right to keep the information confidential, as occurred in Los Angeles Unified, and would allow the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing to consider older information as well.);
  • Permit dismissal notices to be filed throughout the year (including summer) and shorten the 45- or 90-day grace period before the board could initiate dismissal proceedings;
  • Withhold pension benefits to any public employee convicted of sex abuse involving a minor;
  • Make decisions of the appeals board, the Commission on Professional Competence, advisory only, giving a school board final say over dismissals.

The resolution asks Superintendent John Deasy to make recommendations to the board next month on how to proceed. If LAUSD didn’t already have enough to worry about, last month the State Supreme Court ruled unanimously  that school districts can be liable for administrators who fail to act to protect children after learning that an employee may be prone to molesting children.

Trustees have cause for frustration. Three years ago, they approved a similar resolution calling for legislative action. While the Legislature failed to enact what the board requested, the issue wasn’t ignored. In 2010, Republican Sen. Bob Huff sponsored SB 955, a sweeping bill calling for changes in teacher evaluations and giving districts more authority to ignore seniority when making layoffs. It also would have given school boards the final say over all teacher dismissal cases, not just those involving personal misconduct and criminal acts. It  would have eliminated the positions of two teachers on the three-person Commission on Professional Competence, leaving appeals solely in the hands of an administrative law judge, whose decisions would have been strictly advisory.

Huff’s bill actually passed the Senate Education Committee, 5-4, but the Democratic Senate leaders referred the bill to the Rules Committee, and it was never brought to the full Senate for a vote – an action that rankled Huff.

Two Democratic senators from Los Angeles have said they would introduce bills on dismissals. Kevin de Leon plans to work on banning pension benefits for teachers convicted of abusing children. The bill would apply only to future cases; Berndt and other teachers now facing charges would continue to be entitled to pensions. Alex Padilla says he will introduce a bill on other dismissal issues sought by LAUSD board members. Meanwhile, Republican Assembly and Senate leaders put out a press release stating that “Republicans are standing with Mayor Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Unified to enact reforms to empower local districts and ensure that a Miramonte-like tragedy never happens again.”

It will be interesting to see whether the Republicans will tailor their bill to apply only to misconduct cases, based on the LAUSD board’s resolution, or whether it will apply to all dismissals, including those based on unsatisfactory performance, which comprises the vast majority of cases and was the intent of Huff in SB 955.

In returning to the trustees with recommendations next month, Deasy too must decide whether he favors a narrow or broad bill.

United Teachers Los Angeles and the California Teachers Association didn’t respond to my requests for comment on likely legislation. UTLA President Warren Fletcher has said the union would be open to renegotiating the prohibition on using old information on unproven misconduct complaints.