(Update: The story has been updated to include the announcement on Thursday that Sen. Alex Padilla has dropped his teacher dismissal bill and become a principal co-author of AB 375, by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan.)
A year ago, Assemblymember Joan Buchanan cast a deciding vote killing a bill that would have pared back the process for firing teachers and administrators alleged to have done egregious acts against children. She said the legislation dealt with a narrow subset of dismissal cases and failed to deal with cumbersome procedures affecting all dismissals.
On Tuesday, Buchanan, who now chairs the Education Committee, introduced her own bill, which takes a different tack while, she says, achieving the same goal: quickening the time it takes to dismiss teachers, with particular provisions applying to those charged with sexual acts and drug offenses involving children.
AB 375 was one of two bills that Buchanan, D-Alamo, announced Tuesday. The other would mandate what districts are now encouraged to do but often ignore: train teachers annually on their legal obligation to report acts of abuse against students. AB 1338 comes in the wake of a spate of abuse cases in which teachers failed to notify authorities of child abuse by teachers, or principals failed to pass on the information once they knew it. In the case of a Brentwood prekindergarten teacher who kicked an autistic child, 11 teachers were reported to have known about the incident but failed to notify authorities. The superintendent, who failed to dismiss the teacher, was fired last month by district trustees following an investigation.
A survey of Bay Area school districts published earlier this month by the Contra Costa Times revealed that fewer than half provide annual training to teachers on what they must report and on signs of abuse to look for. Buchanan’s bill would also require school boards to adopt policies on child abuse reporting.
Calls for reforming laws on teacher dismissal follow several horrific cases, including one in Los Angeles Unified in which the district paid an elementary teacher $40,000, including legal fees, to drop the appeal of his firing. Last month, the district agreed to pay $30 million to half of the families who sued in the case; the teacher, Mark Berndt, faces 23 felony counts of lewd conduct for allegedly spoon-feeding semen to blindfolded students.
Responding to districts’ complaints that they pay abusers not to contest their firing because the process can cost districts hundreds of thousands of dollars and take 18 months to two years to resolve, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, sponsored SB 1530. It would have limited the due process appeals of teachers and administrators charged specifically with “egregious or serious” offenses by teachers and administrators involving drugs, sex, and violence against children. Under current law, teachers can appeal their dismissals to a three-person Commission on Professional Competence, which includes two teachers and an administrative law judge. Padilla’s bill would have replaced the commission with only an administrative law judge who would have made strictly advisory recommendations to the local school board for a final decision, appealable in court. Padilla’s bill lost by one vote in the Assembly Education Committee.
On Thursday, Padilla announced, in a joint news release with Buchanan, that he will drop this year’s version of his bill, SB 10, and become a principal co-author of Buchanan’s bill. Their joining forces signals that there should be less contention over the issue this year and increases the odds that a bill will reach Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.
“We share a common interest: keeping our children safe at school. We have worked together successfully in the past, and I believe we can accomplish more by working together on these important issues,” Padilla said in the press statement.
Buchanan, who was a San Ramon Valley Unified board member for two decades, has maintained the dismissal process can be streamlined without denying core due process rights to teachers. The problems, she says, which apply to all dismissal proceedings – not just those involving egregious conduct – include the length of the appeals process and cumbersome rules of evidence. After a school board has voted to dismiss teachers accused of serious misconduct, districts can stop paying them during an appeals process, although not all districts do.
- Require the entire appeals process to be completed in seven months;
- Deny teachers the ability to appeal a suspension to Superior Court and deny both sides the right to appeal evidentiary disputes to Superior Court;
- Limit the discovery process;
- Allow both sides to agree to a hearing before an administrative judge instead of the Commission on Professional Competence.
The bill also would allow, and in some instances require, suspension of employees charged with certain drug offenses.
“We wanted to ensure the safety of children by maintaining the provisions that allow those accused of child and sex abuse to be removed from the classroom immediately and to be charged at any time,” Buchanan said in a statement. “We wanted to fix an expensive, redundant appeal process so that it is faster and less costly for all cases, including those for immoral conduct, unprofessional conduct, and unsatisfactory performance. We wanted to update outdated code sections. We wanted to ensure due process for employees. We believe we have accomplished these goals.”
Summer dismissal notices
Both the bill that Padilla has dropped and Buchanan’s AB 375 would remove two other obstacles to dismissal under current law. In charges involving child and sexual abuse, they would allow districts to issue dismissal notices during the summer and permit the use of evidence dating back longer than four years. Teachers unions had advocated for these protections to prevent districts from dredging up stale evidence in dismissals over poor performance.
Padilla’s highly charged bill drew national attention last year and pitted the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers against reform groups like Sacramento-based StudentsFirst. Among those who testified in support of the bill at the Assembly Education Committee hearing was Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy.
In November, four months after SB 1530’s defeat, the State Auditor released Los Angeles Unified School District: It could do more to improve its handling of child abuse allegations. The report took no position on changing state laws, but it did note that, under state law, the process for dismissing teachers and administrators was lengthier and costlier than for other “classified” district employees without the same due process rights. The main difference is that the local school board has the final say over whether to dismiss staff lacking a teaching credential, a process that takes at most four months.
However, the report also concluded that Los Angeles Unified contributed significantly to its own expense because it took the district so long to investigate teachers whom it had suspended, with pay, because of allegations of child abuse. One case languished for more than a year before the district’s investigations unit began its work. The report noted, “As of mid-September 2012, the district had paid $3 million in salaries to 20 employees whom the district had housed the longest for allegations of misconduct against students, including one employee who has been housed for 4.5 years.”
Deasy said that the district has enacted changes that the State Auditor called for in the report.