By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Burio had taught at two schools before becoming a science teacher at San Pedro High School in 2001. But after he arrived, documents show, school administrators began to notice his shortcomings. Burio got five "below-standard" teaching evaluations — an exceedingly high number — in just four years.
The district alleges that Burio frequently told students that because his class was inquiry-based, "teachers do not teach." That theory became "his mantra," recalls San Pedro Assistant Principal Jan Murata. "He was unable to adapt or to change."
Principals and administrators said he failed to engage his students, lectured without apparent objectives and did not ensure that the children had textbooks. In one lab assignment, he told his pupils to record the behavior of live animals, but purportedly failed to bring animals to class. Students could look at pictures of animals in books instead, and "figure it out," Burio allegedly told them. When students complained, Burio allegedly taunted them, saying he'd "buy a fish" and dig in his backyard for earthworms. Only four of his 29 students tried to write up his odd assignment. (Burio, who disputes many of the claims, could not be reached for comment despite the Weekly's repeated efforts to contact him both directly and through UTLA.)
Murata launched what became a disheartening six-year process of repeated evaluations, weekly observations, regular parent meetings and costly re-training undertaken by personal mentors, with the aim of improving Burio's skills. When the district decided to fire him, many parents, though angry, did not want to complain in writing. "Parents believe the teacher should know what [he's] doing. It's very difficult," Murata says.
Jackie Bebich, a science program booster president at San Pedro High School, says parents often feel helpless to intervene, even as the damage to children mounts: "There are 200 kids per year" in just one high school teacher's classes, "so over five years, that's 1,000 kids affected."
Last year, LAUSD gave up trying to fire him, and paid Burio $50,000 to quietly leave, one of 32 such cases in the past several years. The district agreed to include no finding of wrongdoing if he agreed never to work for LAUSD again. Then, last fall, Murata says, Burio contacted her — requesting a letter of recommendation for a job. She declined.
Angry principals and administrators, like the retired Basalone, say there is "no excuse" for LAUSD's practice of waiting for teachers to fail five evaluations, as with Burio, before trying to fire them. Robert Bilovsky, principal at Berendo Middle School, says it's "ridiculous. ... Why have an evaluation system if you're not going to use it?" Duffy says the district is at fault if a teacher with five below-standard evaluations is allowed to remain in the classroom.
Clearly feeling the sting of recent criticism for failing to fire teachers accused of sexual and physical misconduct, Cortines, in an interview with the Weekly, says that he recently ordered principals to begin dismissal proceedings against tenured teachers after just two consecutive below-standard evaluations.
"I've cut that out," Cortines says. But when asked for a copy of the new policy, district officials referred the Weekly to a December press release stating Cortines' concerns that 175 permanent and certificated teachers got a below-standard "Stull" rating last year, while 48 others failed two evaluations. The vague press release does not lay out a new policy, such as identifiable steps Cortines is taking to oust teachers who fail more than two evaluations.
When a teacher gets a below-standard Stull evaluation — named after a lawmaker who in 1971 authored California legislation requiring checks of educators' work — that teacher participates in a rehab program called Peer Assistance and Review, as did Burio and Loftis. The program, engineered by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when he was a state assemblyman in 2000, is supposed to improve schools by pairing failing teachers with mentors — often retired teachers with many years of experience.
By some accounts, PAR is a miserable failure. Under the confidential program — a secrecy feature that teachers unions insisted on — not even school principals can find out if their subpar teachers are improving. District officials admit to the Weekly that only about one-third of teachers pass the training.
Moreover, as happened with Burio at San Pedro High, principals must keep these substandard teachers in the classroom during the retraining. There are no particular consequences if a teacher does not improve.
"The intent of the law is to help an ineffective person become better," Basalone says. "It doesn't mean I can stay ineffective."
According to previously undisclosed data obtained by the Weekly, three anonymous LAUSD teachers have taken the retraining five times in the past three years, 18 have taken it four times, and 45 three times. Parents do not know, and cannot find out, the names of these 66 teachers who are repeatedly recycled through the PAR program. Another 400 teachers were required to enter the program once or twice during the past four years. The state program costs $1.4 million per year, mostly to pay for 50 personal mentors in LAUSD.
Marsha Oh-Bilodeau, the district's PAR coordinator, says the names are kept confidential to encourage teachers to participate without embarrassment. But the secrecy appears to go well beyond protecting feelings. LAUSD lawyers refused to release to the Weekly the names of any of the 466 teachers in question — without a court order.