When Warner Takaki caught the odor on her daughter's fifth-grade teacher while volunteering in the classroom just after school let out, she ran to the office. "It's happening right now," she says she told the office manager. "I smell booze right now."
That December 2012 afternoon wasn't the first time a parent had reported that Robert Borowski, 53, smelled like alcohol at Walgrove Elementary School in Mar Vista. According to interviews and documents obtained by L.A. Weekly, parents and co-workers had in prior years complained about that and his alleged absenteeism, verbal abuse of students and helping students cheat on standardized tests — claims Borowski denies.
According to Takaki, the office manager told her that because principal Olivia Adams was not on the campus, "We don't have the two people with the authority to go over and smell him."
Takaki, 44, a stay-at-home mom who previously had a teaching credential and worked as an aide in Borowski's class two years earlier, was not deterred. She and 15 other parents knew that state laws and union contracts make it nearly impossible to get a tenured teacher fired. They saw Borowski as a potentially tough opponent because he had a law degree and was the school's union chapter chair. [Editor's note: See correction at story's end.]
Over the next four months, the Westside parents, active in school governance and the well-funded Friends of Walgrove booster club, meticulously documented their problems with Borowski.
Ultimately, Borowski took a medical leave. When he planned to return, parents protested to LAUSD in emails and letters, obtained by the Weekly, alleging that he frequently left his class unattended and reduced students to tears over minor issues. In 2012 and 2013, five parents reported that he smelled of alcohol at school.
Citing their kids' stress, nightmares and social withdrawal, parents threatened to pull children out of the school.
This was not the only tense clash between Borowski and parents. Previously, principal Adams and parents tried to turn Walgrove into a "Local Initiative School," which would have given Adams more power to select good teachers. But with union rep Borowski opposed to the idea, it went nowhere.
In their final clash, concerned parents prevailed — to an extent. Borowski ended up at 54th Street Elementary School in Windsor Hills. That school's principal, Arlene Fortier, also transferred there from Walgrove. As Walgrove principal in 2011, Fortier investigated cheating allegations, in which Borowski says he was cleared.
Because 54th Street is a disadvantaged school — 88 percent of kids qualify for the school lunch program, 77 percent are black and 17 percent are Latino — many Walgrove parents and students decided to speak out about their history with Borowski.
"I'm thrilled that he's not at Walgrove, and he's no longer our problem," Takaki says. "I am sickened that he is now the problem of a group of people who don't have the resources and/or time to fight the way that we did."
Borowski strongly denies the allegations by Walgrove parents — and some parents at Walgrove defend him as a good teacher. "I have always conducted myself in a professional manner and will continue to do so throughout my career," he tells the Weekly via text. Later, in an interview, he adds, "I have never violated district policy in regards to any of their zero tolerance policies or towards students in any way. ... I never, ever have consumed alcohol on campus."
Even after he left, Walgrove parents continued to document their complaints.
Several parents signed legal declarations in the Vergara v. California lawsuit, which aims to upend California's unusually protective teacher tenure and seniority laws. Parent Claudia Trevisan said she smelled alcohol on Borowski's breath before class, and he "was often abusive to students. He adjusted the climate control in his room to be frigidly cold, causing students to have to bring heavy jackets and blankets."
Their statements were not introduced during the Vergara trial, now awaiting a judge's ruling. But at trial, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy testified that it can take nearly a decade and cost millions of dollars to fire an ineffective teacher.
Regarding complaints against Borowski, Deasy tells the Weekly in a voice mail, "You have actually found exactly the type of case that typifies the problems with these laws."
Principal Adams will speak only in general, saying, "If a teacher is struggling but is open to learning, I can work with that." But if a teacher resists help, "for me to do anything requires a tremendous amount of work, and can be quite daunting."
She was not Walgrove's principal in early 2011, when Borowski says the district cleared him of allegedly helping students cheat on standardized tests.
One test proctor who asked not to be named tells the Weekly that she was the source of the anonymous tip alleging cheating incidents. She says that, although she was the test proctor, then-principal Fortier failed to question her — but instead questioned young students in a clearly awkward group setting.
Fortier did not return a call and an email seeking comment.
Some of Borowski's ex-students now tell the Weekly he helped their class cheat on state standardized tests — but they didn't want to get him in trouble.
"We all thought that we should protect him," says Nyasha Ezekiel, 13. "We didn't want him to get fired. So we just, like, didn't tell the truth." Adds Vairleene Einstein, 14, "I knew that if I told the truth, our teacher would get in trouble."
According to Einstein's sister Magdaline, also 14, during the state test, "I asked him a question, what a word meant, and he just pointed at the answer." When another girl didn't understand gravitational pull, Borowski taught an impromptu lesson, she says. "He grabbed an object and showed her what it was." Vairleene Einstein adds, "With the person next to me, he would just directly give them answers."
Borowski responds, "That was a baseless allegation that was investigated by the district and found to be untrue." (LAUSD would not release documents about the investigation, citing pending litigation.)
Past LAUSD superintendents transferred problem teachers to other, unsuspecting, schools. But Deasy has ramped up teacher firings, ranging from teachers who stopped showing up to misconduct situations.
That didn't happen at Walgrove.
Takaki, who was helping in Borowski's class, says she saw memos that principal Adams left on his desk, documenting his absence and directing him to stop keeping the classroom so cold. When Borowski began calling in sick in February 2013, one parent describes "a revolving door of completely unprepared subs." Bruce Horwitz pulled his daughter out and paid $5,000 a month for a tutor. "We just said, 'Screw this,' " he recalls.
Then last spring, hearing that Borowski planned to return, a dozen families wrote to nine LAUSD officials, including Deasy and Board of Education member Steve Zimmer, demanding "the name of the person directly responsible for any further student trauma" should Borowski return to teach.
Principal Adams told parents that Borowski would be assigned new duties, according to an email obtained by the Weekly, but they still threatened a boycott. Borowski would not comment, citing "the current status of investigations." United Teachers Los Angeles, his union, had no comment.
Several former colleagues and Walgrove parents defend Borowski, saying he struggled after his father died in 2010 and his mother fell ill. In a letter to the State Bar provided to the Weekly by Borowski, ex-principal Fortier called him an "excellent teacher" with "integrity and honesty."
Borowski posted on Facebook last December that he quit drinking alcohol because of a genetic disorder.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The parent representative at 54th Street School, Lillie Alexander, says there have been no complaints there.
"I currently have a wonderful relationship with my students, parents, colleagues and administrator," Borowski texts the Weekly. "I am quite sure this will continue throughout the rest of what I anticipate will be a long career."
Jenny Hontz has a preschooler and is founding parent of a Del Rey charter school.
Editor's note: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story said Warner Takaki has a teaching credential. Takaki had a teaching credential but does not at this time.