Gov. Jerry Brown has saved a much-disputed bill on teacher dismissals for the last batch of bills facing him before Sunday’s deadline for deciding legislation. Opponents have used the time to turn up the volume to pressure the governor to veto Assembly Bill 375, authored by Assembly Education Committee Chair Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo).
Last week, the California School Boards Association and the Sacramento-based advocacy group EdVoice published a provocative ad in the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee, under the headline “25 CHILDREN IN A CLASSROOM WITH AN ABUSER,” that charges the bill “makes it harder to remove a teacher from the classroom who may be at risk to children.” The ad calls on readers to call Brown and urge him to veto the bill.
Buchanan on Tuesday charged that the opponents are spreading misinformation and waging a campaign “not based on facts but emotion.”
The law already allows and will continue to permit school districts to immediately remove teachers and administrators suspected of abusing children. They can transfer teachers out of a classroom or place them on administrative leave.
What’s at issue is whether the technical language of AB 375 will make it quicker and less costly to fire teachers for all causes, from serious misconduct to unsatisfactory performance. Buchanan insists that her bill, which the California Teaches Association strongly backs, does.
What AB 375 doesn’t do is eliminate the authority of the three-person Commission on Professional Competence, consisting of two teachers or administrators and an administrative law judge, to decide cases involving allegations of serious offenses. That’s what school districts would want and what a bill last year (Senate Bill 1530 by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles) would have done. It would have turned over firing authority to school boards. But it died after a nasty fight and opposition by the CTA, which charged the bill would have eroded teachers’ right to due process.
Buchanan, a former two-decade member of the San Ramon Valley Unified School Board, voted against Padilla’s bill and vowed to return this year with a compromise version. The goal would be to streamline the process for all dismissal cases, not just those dealing with molestation and sexual abuse, so that districts faced with lengthy litigation and six-digit legal fees would be less inclined to pay teachers like Mark Berndt, an accused child molester, to resign. Last year, Los Angeles Unified paid Berndt $40,000 in back pay and legal fees in return for not contesting dismissal charges. Since then, the district has agreed to pay $30 million in settlements to dozens of children whose families have filed claims against it.
Buchanan’s bill ran into trouble, too, however. EdVoice, the school boards association and the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) argued that AB 375 either didn’t go far enough to make the process easier or created new obstacles. The bill looked dead for the year after coming up short of votes in the Senate Education Committee. But, after Buchanan negotiatied amendments with Senate Education Committee Chair Carol Liu (D-La Canada-Flintridge), it resurfaced last month and quickly passed through the Legislature.
Caught by surprise, opponents have called foul. Dennis Meyers, assistant executive director for the California School Boards Association, said he and others had not had time to respond to the amendments, which he characterized as “a façade.” He’s calling on Brown to send the bill back “to open up the process to make it better.”
Buchanan said the amendments responded to criticisms that opponents raised at public hearings and that she has met with both sides of the issue numerous times for over a year.
AB 375 would would place a seven-month time limit on dismissal proceedings before the Commission on Professional Competence and limit the amount of evidence that could be submitted – a cause of lengthy proceedings. An administrative law judge could extend the deadline for wrapping up the case for a “reasonable timetable” if there were a “good cause,” as opposed to “extraordinary circumstances” required under an earlier version of the bill.
But opponents counter that attorneys for teachers could still drag out proceedings, forcing the district to pay settlements rather than start the seven-month clock again. And they argue that the bill’s restrictions on amending charges against a teacher and limiting the districts to taking five depositions would hinder their cases.
Buchanan said that the administrative proceedings for dismissal don’t require the burden of proof of a criminal case; limiting the number of depositions is a tradeoff for a faster process. There’s no limit on the number of witnesses the district could present, she said.
But Laura Preston, lobbyist for ACSA, the administrators’ organization, said there will be instances where additional evidence will be critical. If a district attorney declines to file a criminal case of abuse, then districts will need to present an even tighter case for dismissal.
Representatives from ACSA and CSBA, as well as Buchanan, have made their arguments separately with the governor’s staff. Even though Brown is close to the CTA and sensitive to public opinion, both Buchanan and Preston said they were told that Brown, a former state attorney general, will make the final call himself after examining the language of the bill.