By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Schonberger benefited from the fact that the small legal unit at LAUSD was already busy juggling a firing case the district badly wanted to win — that of Pinewood Elementary School teacher Colleen Kolter. According to district documents, between May 2003 and October 2005, while teaching at the Pinewood grade school, in Tujunga, Kolter racked up four notices of unsatisfactory service and three below-standard Stull evaluations from a newly reassigned but veteran principal, Ada Munoz-Yslas.
Munoz-Yslas says that Kolter, a thin woman in her mid-50s, went for days without teaching anything and resisted advice from the pricey math and literary coaches sent in to retrain her. "When I started there, almost immediately, people came up to me to complain about the things that had been happening: parents, students, teachers," says Munoz-Yslas, now the principal at Van Nuys Elementary School. "Lack of classroom management, safety issues, not meeting the education needs of students. ... There was a lack of following and implementing the curriculum. A lack of planning."
Teaching assistants and others tried to salvage the children's wasted year. Yet the mystery is that during the eight years prior to Munoz-Yslas' arrival, LAUSD never put Kolter on the dismissal track — even when furious and fed-up parents took their children out of Pinewood altogether.
The state Commission on Professional Competence found that Kolter sometimes had "an unsteady gait and was using slurred speech," once requiring a small child to support her. Records show that Kolter argued that LAUSD failed to force her to take sick leave to deal with her "bipolar disorder and depression." But the competence panel said she was fired because "at bottom, it appears she cannot teach." Kolter could not be reached for comment, and her attorney, Lawrence Trygstad, whose firm is used by UTLA to represent teachers facing dismissal, declined to comment.
Kolter's firing is one of LAUSD's exceedingly rare and clear-cut dismissal victories in the past 10 years. Yet by the end of that struggle, LAUSD had spent a staggering $305,576 on private attorneys who helped the district's legal staff in the fight to get rid of her.
LAUSD is not as aggressive as New York City, whose school district employs eight attorneys solely to remove bad teachers, and places underperforming teachers in the district's infamous "rubber rooms" — offices away from children, where they earn full salary to do nothing during their job disputes.
But in Los Angeles, under Romer, Brewer and now Cortines, because LAUSD pays just a handful of attorneys to work only part-time on such cases, the small legal unit was nearly overwhelmed by pursuing Kolter at Pinewood Elementary while handling Schonberger's dismissal. As attorney Collins explains, because of Kolter's decision to wage an extensive battle to keep her job, and LAUSD's equally passionate determination to prevent that, "we were completely swamped. We would have had [to pay] outside counsel, our fees, [Schonberger's] salary — and then there was our normal caseload."
Records obtained by the Weekly describe how, in 2004, Schonberger received a below-standard Stull evaluation and low marks for his teaching skills, inability to engage students in problem-solving and failure to establish rigorous learning goals at Fairfax High School.
Parent Orly Beyder recalls how her daughter, Michelle, now a photography major at San Francisco State University, came home upset about how little her class was learning. "He was ... not interested in the kids. He didn't seem to enjoy teaching," Beyder recalls. Beyder met with Schonberger, worried that her daughter's education was at risk. But he was not willing to talk it through with Beyder. "He was just a snotty teacher in our meeting," she says.
Beyder instructed her daughter to keep her head down, reminding her, "He's the teacher."
Beyder adds, "I know it's very hard to be a teacher and to teach high school, but I don't think teachers like that should teach."
Two years later, after Schonberger was reassigned to Berendo Middle School, distict officials say 104 eighth-grade students protested his teaching by signing a petition accusing him of directing insults and sexually charged remarks at them.
Schonberger has a markedly different view. In an odd phone interview with the Weekly, he identified himself and insisted he had been railroaded. The following day, he called the Weekly back, claiming that a person familiar with his story had impersonated him during the first interview. He then essentially repeated the claims from the previous day, that he was scapegoated by administrators, who sided with parents rather than supporting a tough teacher keen on delivering a good education and discipline to unruly kids.
Schonberger also claimed that as an untenured, green teacher at Fairfax High, he was targeted by administrators. But the record shows the opposite: that they granted him lifelong tenure after just two years of classroom experience, as LAUSD does with the vast majority of teachers.
He also painted the 104-signature petition against him as having been orchestrated by a small group of Berendo Middle School students, scoffing, "Kids will do anything to mitigate their own failure and behavior." Schonberger only accepted the $90,000 settlement, he says, because "I felt I was done being Don Quixote, I was fighting windmills, a monolithic administrative hierarchical entity at odds with its stated purposes to educate and socialize students."
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