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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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During our investigation, in which we obtained hundreds of documents using the California Public Records Act, we also discovered that 32 underperforming teachers were initially recommended for firing, but then secretly paid $50,000 by the district, on average, to leave without a fight. Moreover, 66 unnamed teachers are being continually recycled through a costly mentoring and retraining program but failing to improve, and another 400 anonymous teachers have been ordered to attend the retraining.

The Weekly was able to obtain the names of all seven teachers targeted for firing, and the names of the 32 who received big settlements of $40,000 to $195,000, and the data showing the size of the group forced into retraining — 466 teachers during the past three years — only after extensive efforts. Nor is the public allowed to see student test scores by classroom — closely guarded and potentially explosive data. Education experts say the secret classroom data shows how bad teachers significantly harm children, producing students with markedly lower test scores as compared to other classrooms on the same hallway.

In the rare instances — fewer than once a year — where the district tries to dismiss a teacher because of performance, each battle wends through a tangled arbitration and court system.

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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In pursuing a firing, school officials rely on a teacher's formal classroom evaluations and, sometimes, disciplinary write-ups, to file an "accusation and statement of charges," which lays out an educator's teaching problems. The teacher can then ask for a decision on his or her case from the Commission on Professional Competence, a panel convened by the state Office of Administrative Hearings. Either side can appeal the outcome of that hearing in California Superior Court, and, ultimately, in higher courts.

It cost the district roughly $3.5 million to try to fire seven teachers because of the cost of hiring outside lawyers with special expertise, administrative overhead, paying ongoing salaries for each teacher during the lengthy legal battles, and other expenses. Documents show only one instance in the past 10 years in which an LAUSD teacher accepted his firing and left without a fight or big payment.

Just a few blocks from LAUSD's skyscraper headquarters, Los Angeles City Hall's approach to firing public employees provides a stark contrast to protections enjoyed by teachers, also public employees. Despite civil-service protections, City Hall fires from its 48,000-plus workforce of garbage, parks, street-services, engineering, utilities and other employees more than 80 tenured workers annually. During the past decade, in which LAUSD fired four failing teachers, 800 to 1,000 underperforming civil service–protected workers were fired at City Hall. City Personnel Department General Manager Margaret Whelan says nobody is paid to leave. She was dumbfounded that LAUSD is paying to dislodge teachers, saying, "That's ridiculous. I can't believe that. Golly, it makes no sense. Some are not even mediocre, they're horrible."

Caprice Young, founder of the nonprofit California Charter Schools Association, was LAUSD school board president until 2003. She saw, behind closed doors, what the public can't: the "dance of the lemons," a term that broadly describes controversial tactics LAUSD utilizes to cope with tenured teachers who can't teach but, under the current system, cannot be fired. Those tactics include not only paying them to leave, but quietly transferring bad teachers to other, unsuspecting schools or repeatedly and fruitlessly "retraining" them while they continue to teach, sometimes harming the educations of thousands of children.

Young believes the inability of the schools to oust poor L.A. teachers is playing a key role in L.A.'s emergence as an epicenter of the charter-school movement. "One year with a bad teacher puts a kid a year, or two, behind the other kids," Young says. "If a parent sees their child has a lemon teacher, if they can get them into another school, they will."

A. J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, has a view of the situation that might startle some. The belief that it's hard to oust underperforming LAUSD teachers is nothing more than an "urban legend," Duffy claims. "There is a mechanism to ask for the removal of teachers ... they have chosen not to do it. Part of it is the bureaucratic nonsense that goes on in the district."

According to confidential settlement agreements obtained by the Weekly under the California Public Records Act, the school district goes to great lengths to avoid the formal steps for firing teachers. Not only has LAUSD paid 32 tenured teachers more than $1.5 million to leave, but the LAUSD school board, which says it is reform-minded, allows these teachers to leave with clean records, and with no hint that they took a payout under pressure. The deals are so hush-hush, in fact, that the Weekly has discovered that one teacher, Que Mars, who taught math at Chester W. Nimitz Middle School, is still listed in LAUSD's substitute-teacher pool after taking a $40,000 check — to stop teaching in L.A.

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