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LAUSD's Dance of the Lemons 

Why firing the desk-sleepers, burnouts, hotheads and other failed teachers is all but impossible

Thursday, Feb 11 2010
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Editor's note: After this article went to press, LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines announced that the district plans to substantially cut back on granting lifelong tenure to inexperienced teachers.

Several years ago, a 74-year-old Dominguez Elementary School fourth-grade teacher was having trouble controlling her students as her abilities deteriorated amid signs of "burnout." Shirley Loftis was told by Los Angeles Unified School District administrators to retire or be fired, and she did retire, but hardly under the school district's terms.

The principal at Dominguez, Irene Hinojosa, recalls how she spent three years documenting Loftis' poor teaching skills and inability to control 10-year-olds. "From the minute I observed her, she basically didn't seem to have the knowledge of the standards and how to deliver them," Hinojosa tells L.A. Weekly. "I had her do lessons on the same standard over and over again, and children did not get it. On simple math concepts [such as determining perimeters and area] — over and over, she didn't know how to deliver."

click to flip through (3) PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SEAN TEAGARDEN - MODELS (LEFT TO RIGHT): BOB PURVEY, WILLOW HALE AND DON LUCAS
  • PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SEAN TEAGARDEN
  • MODELS (LEFT TO RIGHT): BOB PURVEY, WILLOW HALE AND DON LUCAS
   
 

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Each September, a new crop of children quickly caught on to the fact that Loftis had lost control. Full-on classroom fights flared up. One child beat another with a backpack, and others threw objects — even a chair, Hinojosa says. Teachers at Dominguez Elementary began reporting incidents to Hinojosa, who moved Loftis' class from a bungalow to a room across from her office. That way, the principal reasoned, she could intervene in the chaos a bit faster.

When parents in the Carson neighborhoods around Dominguez Park got wind of the troubles, some sought to transfer their children. A handful succeeded, but Hinojosa says every child "righteously deserved to be moved out. ... The kids totally disrespected [Loftis] by the end. It was a lost year for them."

But Loftis won a ruling in her favor by the state Commission on Professional Competence, a powerful arbitration panel of two educators and an administrative-law judge who can prevent California schools from firing teachers. The panel agreed in 2002 that the district had "grounds for dismissal" of Loftis. But, panel members essentially argued, Loftis had taught at the school for 23 years, and administrators had shown bias in pursuing her while not taking enough steps to do something about her burnout. District officials embarked on a long Superior Court appeals process, but the judge agreed with the arbitration panel that Loftis could perform another LAUSD job — like training teachers.

After five years, district lawyers decided to stop their costly fight and agreed to settle, paying Loftis' attorneys' fees of $195,000 on top of $300,000 that Loftis earned during the dispute to work away from children — in a job in the administration.

"We chased that case forever," says LAUSD Associate General Counsel Kathleen Collins, a young and effervescent lawyer who is something of an anomaly inside LAUSD's toe-the-line executive offices downtown. "It was my first case, and I felt like, 'This can't be the way things work.'"

Loftis, now 83, could not be reached for comment, and a United Teachers Los Angeles representatives declined to comment. But her associates described her as an articulate, highly energetic woman who seems far younger than her years. Of the epic battle she lost to Loftis, Collins says, "You can only have passion for so long" before the obstacles force you to give up.

Principal Hinojosa thought that because she is younger than the previous principal, she had the energy required to oust a tenured educator. Instead, she learned, "It is so difficult to dismiss or discipline veteran teachers."

Los Angeles Unified School District, with its 885 schools and 617,000 students, educates one in every 10 children in California. It also mirrors a troubled national system of teacher evaluations and job security that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says must change. Recent articles in the Los Angeles Times have described teachers who draw full pay for years while they sit at home fighting allegations of sexual or physical misconduct.

But the far larger problem in L.A. is one of "performance cases" — the teachers who cannot teach, yet cannot be fired. Their ranks are believed to be sizable — perhaps 1,000 teachers, responsible for 30,000 children. But in reality, nobody knows how many of LAUSD's vast system of teachers fail to perform. Superintendent Ramon Cortines tells the Weekly he has a "solid" figure, but he won't release it. In fact, almost all information about these teachers is kept secret.

But the Weekly has found, in a five-month investigation, that principals and school district leaders have all but given up dismissing such teachers. In the past decade, LAUSD officials spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district's 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance — and only four were fired, during legal struggles that wore on, on average, for five years each. Two of the three others were paid large settlements, and one was reinstated. The average cost of each battle is $500,000.

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