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Mark Berndt's $40,000 Payoff

PHOTO BY SEAN TEEGARDEN

Los Angeles Unified School District's often bizarre rules for disciplining teachers were exposed with the recent disclosure that former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct, including spoon-feeding children his semen, was quietly paid $40,000 to resign last year.

School officials, widely denounced in recent days for handing cash to an alleged sexual pervert, have responded that paying off Berndt to leave his job was far cheaper than firing him.

L.A. Weekly has learned the settlement was entered into by school district general counsel David Holmquist's office without a vote of the elected seven-member Board of Education, which is led by president Monica Garcia. In fact, the board has given Holmquist the power to settle with teachers for up to $250,000 without consulting it, regardless of the allegations.

Initially, the district fired Berndt, but he challenged the decision and ultimately agreed to resign for a cash payout.

LAUSD spokesman Thomas Waldman explained to the Weekly that the school board wasn't asked by its legal team what it preferred to do, saying the scandal hadn't gone public when the settlement deal was finalized in June 2011.

"It wasn't high-profile at that point," Waldman explains. "It was weird and odd — but there was no media coverage."

The Board of Education had secretly voted not to settle with Berndt but to fire him, on the closed-door recommendation of recently departed Superintendent Ramón Cortines. Board members knew the L.A. County Sheriff's Department was investigating claims that Berndt had committed lewd acts on scores of students, and that there were creepy photos to back the claims.

But the school board was caught off guard last week when the $40,000 settlement, authorized by Holmquist, was discovered by an enterprising reporter at public radio station KPCC.

That such a decision can be made by Holmquist, who is not an elected official, is indicative of the extent to which the LAUSD and its board have distanced themselves from responsibility for bad apples in the classrooms. Holmquist could not be reached for comment.

"That's the way the legal system works," school board member Tamar Galatzan says. "It's obviously disgusting that we had to pay money to get this accused pervert off our payroll."

Holmquist told the Los Angeles Times that the district couldn't fire Berndt within the tangled teacher-disciplinary system because Los Angeles County Sheriff's officials asked LAUSD not to gather evidence against him. A Sheriff's spokesman acknowledges that his department didn't want a parallel investigation by LAUSD unfolding while detectives tried to determine what Berndt had done, and to whom.

Berndt, like the vast majority of fired LAUSD teachers, appealed his firing rather than walk away.

Teachers are made well aware by their union, United Teachers Los Angeles, that the district rarely risks the huge legal costs and ongoing teacher-salary costs associated with firing a single teacher. As the Weekly has reported, it costs an average of $500,000 and takes several years to fire a teacher who decides to fight back. In each case, LAUSD must convince a special state panel that is biased toward teachers, and sometimes spends years skirmishing in a courtroom.

Because he fought back, Berndt got to resign rather than be fired. In either case, he retains lifetime health coverage and his pension, totaling $3,891.17 monthly in pretax benefits. If he lives to the average age of a man in California, he'll reap about $1 million.

In 2010, the Weekly reported in its cover story "The Dance of the Lemons" that the district routinely and secretly pays off incompetent teachers who appeal their firings. Because these ineffective teachers have no firings on their record, they sometimes are hired by other, unsuspecting districts. At least one was rehired to substitute-teach for LAUSD.

The Weekly found that 39 subpar LAUSD teachers appealed their firings between 2000 and 2010. The district, which employs about 33,000 teachers, settled to get rid of 34 of the 39, and spent years fighting to fire the rest. Only four teachers were fired; one was reinstated.

Two years ago, the L.A. Times reported that LAUSD now spends $10 million annually to pay bad teachers not to teach while the district tries to fire them for sexual abuse, inappropriateness or other troubles. The teachers are paid full salary to sit at home or in a special LAUSD "rubber room."

To former LAUSD principal Dan Basalone, the district's failure to fire Berndt underscores everything that's wrong.

Basalone tells the Weekly, "If he's really bad, you have to label him as bad, and you can't do that without a disciplinary hearing," which LAUSD did not conduct because it settled with Berndt.

That, Basalone says, was a grave error: "The district has to fight for the integrity of the system. It's as simple as that."

Basalone, a onetime official with the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, says the district could have kept Berndt in a rubber room or assigned to his home until the sheriff's investigation was finished. LAUSD then could have used the criminal findings to fire Berndt.

What LAUSD did instead "erodes the discipline process; it makes the discipline process ineffectual," Basalone says. "If you tell me the easiest way to get rid of someone is to force them to retire [with a settlement], then I say your disciplinary system is worthless."

William McSweeney, the Sheriff's Department's chief of detectives, says his detectives asked LAUSD not to interview witnesses against Berndt because "any kind of double questioning of witnesses can jeopardize a criminal case, especially if it goes ahead of us."

McSweeney said the investigation took more than a year as detectives tried to track down 100-plus possible victims — including grade-schoolers depicted in photos with blindfolds and tape across their mouths.

"We probably could give [the district] enough information to support his termination at this point," McSweeney says. "In June [when the district settled with Berndt] we were not in a position to share much useful information they could make public."

McSweeney called the district's position a "catch-22," saying, "My guess is he could collect more [salary during his] appeals and other things" than the $40,000 buyout.

But that reasoning negates Basalone's argument — that LAUSD is severely undermining its disciplinary system by letting even horrific acts by teachers go unpunished.

Basalone says the LAUSD board won't stand up to the union, which fights hard to back members who appeal their firings.

UTLA spokeswoman Marla Eby says her union has no opinion on the district's decision to pay off Berndt. "We weren't involved in the settlement," she says.

But the UTLA is deeply involved in such settlements, even if its leaders don't call the shots day-to-day.

Three years ago, then–UTLA President A.J. Duffy threatened a political war against the LAUSD school board if its members approved a reform idea by board member Marlene Canter. Canter's plan was hardly radical: She sought to put the school board on record as intending to lobby the California Legislature to change the Education Code so that districts can more easily get rid of teachers who are sexual deviants, or inappropriate or ineffective.

The code, section 44929.22, automatically grants so-called permanent status, or lifelong tenure, to newbie teachers after just two years in the classroom. It kicks in whether their performance merits it or not.

The school board openly feared the antireformist Duffy, UTLA and its members. And on April 28, 2009, Canter's proposal — to merely lobby the Legislature for change — went up in smoke.  Even Canter abandoned it, leaving Galatzan the only backer.

At the time, Daniel Barnhart, north area chairman for UTLA, claimed teachers were the best people to "raise their voices about issues of wrongdoing around the schools."

Such sentiments from UTLA leaders have repeatedly proved wrong. In case after case, teachers express shock when authorities find that molesters and alleged molesters are working beside them — as teachers.

Reach the writer at bbarr223@yahoo.com.


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