Gov. Jerry Brown ended three years of high-decibel battles in the Legislature on Wednesday by signing a bill he helped shape that should make it quicker and easier to fire teachers accused of the most abhorrent forms of misconduct. Although it also includes other changes to the state’s dismissal laws, the group that successfully persuaded a Superior Court judge this month to declare those laws unconstitutional charged that the bill doesn’t do anything to make it less onerous to fire teachers for poor performance – the bulk of dismissal cases.
Assembly Bill 215 “ is a step in the right direction in streamlining dismissal in cases of egregious classroom misconduct,”said Students Matter, the group that filed Vergara v. State of California. “However, the proposed changes related to dismissal in cases of poor performance do nothing to alleviate the burdensome dismissal process outlined during weeks of testimony” in the case.
In his preliminary decision, Judge Rolf Treu invalidated three laws governing teacher dismissal and laws granting tenure after two years of probation and requiring layoffs by seniority, but put his ruling on hold pending the outcome of an expected appeal.
Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, authored AB 215 after Brown vetoed her dismissal bill last year, saying some of the changes would have worsened an already complex process. But he also encouraged her to try again, and she did so by bringing together two adversaries on the issue, the California Teachers Association and the nonprofit advocacy group EdVoice, and narrowing the scope to focus on “egregious misconduct” cases – those involving sex crimes and abuse in the classroom and some drug offenses. She also ran the bill by Brown before going public with it.By cutting the time and expense of litigating these types of cases, districts should be able to avoid out-of-court settlements like the one between the Los Angeles Unified School District and Mark Berndt, an elementary school teacher accused in 2012 of sexually abusing dozens of students. In that case L.A. Unified paid Berndt $40,000 to not appeal his firing. He was sentenced in 2013 to 25 years in prison for committing lewd acts on children. The law will also prohibit districts from agreeing to nondisclosure agreements and expunging accusations of abuse from personnel records if teachers agree to quit.
Buchanan narrowed the scope to deal primarily with ‘egregious misconduct’ cases – those involving sex crimes and abuse in the classroom and some drug offenses. She also ran the bill by Brown before going public with it.
Key ways that AB 215 will expedite and simplify the dismissal process in egregious misconduct cases include:
- Creating a separate hearing process after a school board has voted to fire a teacher for egregious misconduct. The case would go before an administrative law judge, whose decision would be binding. Cases not involving egregious misconduct would continue as before, with hearings by a three-person panel consisting of an administrative law judge and two educators, one chosen by the district and one by the teacher. The CTA opposes eliminating the panel, called a Commission on Professional Competence, for dismissals based on charges of poor performance.
- Giving a teacher 30 days to appeal a firing by the district; the hearing before the administrative law judge would then begin within 60 days;
- Allowing evidence of egregious misconduct older than four years to be used as evidence;
- Permitting charges of egregious misconduct to be filed over the summer. Notice of dismissal for unsatisfactory performance must be filed during the school year.
AB 215 also addresses some of the complaints from school districts about red tape impeding dismissals for non-egregious misconduct and unsatisfactory performance.
- Hearings in non-egregious conduct cases must begin within six months of a school board’s vote to dismiss, with a decision reached within seven months. A judge could grant a continuance after certifying that there had been significant progress. The California School Boards Association, in opposing the bill, predicted that routine extensions will result in longer cases with higher costs, but Brown and EdVoice CEO Bill Lucia disagreed.
- There will be limits on the number of depositions that can be entered as evidence and on the discovery process. An administrative law judge, not a Superior Court judge, will settle evidence disputes.
Lawyers for Students Matter dismissed these changes to the process of firing teachers for poor performance as inconsequential. But courts could determine that the Legislature went far enough with AB 215 to fix a convoluted process. And Treu’s decision could be overturned on appeal.
“The public has long demanded that we improve this process and both school districts and employees deserve a dismissal process that is fair, efficient and cost-effective,” Buchanan said in a statement Wednesday. “The provisions of this bill achieve these aims.”