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
Duffy sees a possible conspiracy afoot in the data obtained by the Weekly. He says many of the 466 teachers who have gotten retraining and mentoring could have been pushed into the program by "vindictive" principals out to inflate the numbers to make it seem as if the LAUSD has big teaching problems. Duffy could provide no documents or data to back up his claim.
But Judith Perez, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents 2,300 school principals, administrators and retirees, says the district is allowing "frequent fliers" and this repetitive retraining is "a disservice to children." She wants to see consequences. "Many of the people who go through the process do improve, but the problem is the frequent fliers," Perez says. "There should be something that happens next."
John Bowes, head of the Office of Staff Relations under Cortines, and part of an internal task force charged by the school board with improving teacher performance, concedes that LAUSD has no hard rule for when to initiate firing procedures — in part because it prefers a "supportive" rather than a "gotcha" mentality. Bowes, a buttoned-down rising star under Cortines, says, "It really reflects the idea that teaching is a craft to be developed and it's an art that's refined by teachers over time."
There's a good reason why downtown administrators seem squeamish about evaluating underperforming L.A. teachers. Gail Hughes, Bowes' predecessor, says that during the 2008 school year, UTLA filed 650 formal grievances on behalf of teachers alleging contract violations. Roughly 300 of those grievances were filed by teachers who got negative classroom-teaching evaluations.
School principals, Hughes says, know that if they negatively review an L.A. teacher's abilities, "just about everyone who gets a below-standard Stull grieves it" — and the principal gets caught in a lengthy, often bitter process. Records show that of 16,235 LAUSD teachers evaluated in 2008, 1,321 were considered below standard in classroom ability. Only a small fraction of those 1,321 received a formal, negative Stull rating. In some cases, the principals simply did not want to get in a nasty fight.
If science teacher Burio represents educators who are repeatedly retrained and then paid large sums to leave, math teacher Mars represents what former administrator Basalone calls the "classic" dance of the lemons.
Mars taught at six schools, but at Nimitz Middle School — his fifth — administrators accused him of deficiencies that could have led to his dismissal. Among those allegations, in 2002 Mars retaught "the same lesson" to students eight times — right in front of Nimitz Principal Frank Vasquez, who was conducting classroom observations. The principal recalls, "He just didn't teach. He did the same thing every day. He confronted kids and pushed them out of the classroom. We wrote him up, and wrote him up, until one day he pushed a kid out of the class" and down some steps.
Vasquez said Mars was "placed" at Nimitz by LAUSD and there was nothing the principal could do. Vasquez says, "We tried everything. We had coaches go in and help him out. PAR tried to help him out." The fallout hit children who were struggling to learn math from Mars. "The kids didn't learn anything, and they didn't respect him."
Mars says his last two positions, at Nimitz and, before that, Gage Middle School, were forced on him, and represented "the biggest hell" of his life. "I didn't even know what was happening to me," says Mars, whose voice trembles as he refers to the school district as "worse than the Mafia."
Mars adds, "You don't know how tough it is. The kids will eat you alive." But he says he's afraid that if he tells his side of the story, his retirement and benefits could be in jeopardy when he turns 53, in two years. (Collins, the attorney, says his claim is absurd, and that LAUSD would not target protected speech — a sure way to lose a major lawsuit.)
Rather than fighting a probable five-year, $500,000 effort to fire Mars, after transferring him repeatedly, LAUSD paid him $40,000 to quit in March 2005.
Little wonder, then, that Vasquez was stunned to hear from the Weekly that despite all this, Mars remains in the school district's substitute-teacher pool. "Oh, wow!" Vasquez blurted out. In fact, when the Weekly spoke to Mars (a phone interview), the children in his substitute-teaching class could be heard in the background.
Superintendent Cortines says he recently banned the repetitive transfer of "lemons." But there is no way to verify if Cortines' ban is working, or if it was even implemented, because the practice unfolds entirely in secret. Nobody, including parents, can currently find out if a newly arrived teacher was sent to a school under a forced transfer.
Of the 34 teachers paid sizable settlements by LAUSD to quit teaching — the 32 such as Mars and Burio who took secret payouts rather than fight, plus two others who fought their firings for years — the Weekly tracked down employment records for 22. Those 22 accounted for more than 70 transfers between schools. It is not known how many of those were forced transfers.
One of those transfers was Howard Schonberger, a teacher who got repeated below-standard evaluations before being paid $90,000 to leave his job at Berendo Middle School, near Olympic Boulevard.