Brown vetoes teacher dismissal bill, urges one more attempt at a fix

October 10, 2013

Gov. Jerry Brown

Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed a bill that would change the complex system for dismissing teachers, while encouraging districts and teachers to keep negotiating a way to simplify the process.

“I share the authors’ desire to streamline the teacher discipline process, but this bill is an imperfect solution,” Brown wrote in a four-paragraph veto statement released Wednesday.

The veto of Assembly Bill 375 is a disappointment for its author, Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, the chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, who worked for a year on the bill, and a defeat for the California Teachers Association, which had strongly backed it. But the veto cheered opponents, including organizations representing school districts and administrators.

“We thank the governor for his leadership in vetoing the bill and recognizing the flaws. He appropriately called for reworking the bill, and we stand ready to do that,” said Vernon Billy, executive director of the California School Boards Association.

The bill would have applied to all dismissals, including those for unsatisfactory performance. But cases of student molestation in Los Angeles Unified drew public attention to the complicated process of firing teachers and district decisions to reach financial settlements to avoid costly legal fees. Last year, Los Angeles Unified paid elementary school teacher Mark Berndt $40,000 in back pay and legal fees so he would not contest dismissal charges against him. Since then, the district has agreed to pay $30 million in settlements to dozens of children whose families have filed claims against it alleging the children were molested by Berndt.

Last year, the CTA managed to kill Senate Bill 1530 by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, which would have transferred the authority over firing teachers from a three-person Commission on Professional Competence to local school boards. The CTA argued that would have eroded teachers’ right to due process. This time, the school boards association and the advocacy organization EdVoice launched high-profile campaigns calling on Brown to kill AB 375.

Even though both sides profess to want to streamline the process, it’s not clear how a compromise can be reached. AB 375 had looked dead for the year after coming up short of votes in the Senate Education Committee. But it resurfaced with amendments last month and passed through the Legislature. Buchanan could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan

In a statement expressing her disappointment with the veto, Buchanan said the bill was the result of “exhaustive” work and built on her 18 years of experience as a school board member for the San Ramon Valley School District.

“As a former school board member, I’ve seen firsthand the problems with the current dismissal process,” the statement said. “In March, EdTrust West published a report that included surveys from districts on the issue of teacher dismissal for poor performance. In describing a successful dismissal, one principal reported, ‘All told, it took eight years and $200,000.’ This should not be acceptable to anyone.”

The bill would have streamlined the process, Buchanan said, and “solved a real problem identified by school districts, teachers and parents throughout the state.”

Brown praised features of AB 375 while singling out two technical points that troubled him.

“I am particularly concerned that limiting the number of depositions to five per side, regardless of the circumstances, and restricting a district’s ability to amend charges even if new evidence comes to light, may do more harm than good,” he wrote.

Buchanan had argued that an unlimited evidentiary process was one reason for the cost and length of time it takes to resolve cases.

AB 375 would have preserved the Commission on Professional Competence, which consists of an administrative law judge and two teachers or administrators. The bill’s chief feature would have set a seven-month time limit for the Commission to reach a decision – unless there was good cause to extend it. Lawyers for the districts opposed this provision.

Brown didn’t comment on this aspect but did agree that the bill “makes some worthwhile adjustments to the dismissal process” and eliminates some opportunities for delay. However, he wrote, other changes “make the process too rigid and could create new problems.”

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