Effort to shorten process of firing teachers faltering again

July 7, 2013

For the second straight year, legislation to quicken and simplify dismissal procedures for teachers is in danger of running aground.

Last year, the state’s teachers unions thwarted a sweeping rewrite of the dismissal law that they argued was excessive. This year, teachers groups have signed on, but groups representing districts and administrators are objecting that the legislation would be ineffective, even counterproductive. Los Angeles Unified supports several amendments but is supportive overall, Edgar Zazueta, the district’s chief lobbyist, said.

The sponsor of Assembly Bill 375, Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, a former school board member who is chair of the Assembly Education Committee and spent a year searching for a workable solution, and is chairperson of the defends her proposal as a vast improvement. A failure to reach a compromise, she said, would preserve a process uniformly criticized as flawed.

Buchanan discusses AB 375 during a hearing July 3 before the Senate Education Committee.

On Wednesday, Buchanan came up one vote short of passage in the Senate Education Committee, with several legislators, including Chair Carol Liu, D- La Cañada Flintridge, declining to vote. Liu has granted a reconsideration of the bill, which will lead to either another hearing in August or a postponement until  next year.

Under current law, dismissals go through a Commission on Professional Competence, consisting of an administrative law judge and two credentialed educators, with the teacher facing charges and the district each selecting one of the two. (This article has been updated —  see note at end) Districts have complained that dismissals take  too long – sometimes 18 months or longer – and can be too costly, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and continued pay to suspended teachers until cases are resolved. As a result, districts frequently turn to a financial settlement. One such deal drew headlines after Los Angeles Unified paid Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, now awaiting trial on multiple molestation charges, $40,000 not to contest his dismissal.

Last year, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, proposed to replace the commission with an advisory hearing before an administrative law judge and to give the local school board final say over dismissals. But  SB 1530 would have applied only to charges of gross misconduct, a small percentage of cases, and drew stiff opposition from teachers unions, which saw the elimination of the commission as a violation of due-process rights.

When she voted against Padilla’s bill, Buchanan, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, promised to continue work on the issue. While her proposal would preserve the three-person Commission on Professional Competence, its reforms would apply to all dismissal cases, including those for unsatisfactory performance, which Padilla’s bill didn’t touch.

AB 375 would address some of the complaints about the current law. It would allow a district to serve dismissal papers over the summer; in cases of immoral conduct, it would allow the introduction of relevant evidence older than four years; and it would pare back the complex evidentiary process.

But its main change would be to impose a seven-month time limit, once dismissal charges have been filed, for cases to be resolved. An administrative law judge could also grant a one-month extension for a valid reason.

“The bill addresses all of the elements that are cumbersome under the current law,” said Patricia Rucker, a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, during a hearing on July 3. “Efficiencies are created, and obstacles are removed.”

Opponents, which include the California School Boards Association’s Education Legal Alliance and the Association of California School Administrators, have raised a number of technical issues. Their main objection is that a seven-month time limit would be too short, given delays in scheduling, in finding qualified teachers to serve on the commission and in resolving evidence questions.

The bill “does not remove the steps, just says to do it quicker,” said Abe Hajela, an attorney who represents San Francisco Unified. Since teachers would have no incentive to adhere to the seven-month deadline, districts would be faced with either refiling cases, furthering the expense, or settling them – which is already the problem, he said.

But Buchanan said that most dismissal hearings actually take days or a week once they are scheduled. By writing a deadline into statute, the Office of Administrative Hearings, which oversees commission proceedings, would be forced to see that the cases are disposed of, just as it does now for disputes involving special education.

“Here is the conundrum: No one can get everything they want in the bill,” Buchanan said in an interview. “In the absence of this bill, the current system remains in place, and attorneys will keep making money.” She  said she would keep discussing the bill next year, if that’s what is required, but at this point, “the bill is fair,” she said, and she’s not inclined to make additional changes.

*Note: This has been corrected. The earlier version incorrectly stated that both educators had to be teachers. See comments for further discussion.


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