Bill simplifying teacher firings now law

June 26, 2014

Joan Buchanan negotiated with adversaries on the issue, EdVoice and the California Teachers Association.

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:

AB 215 also addresses some of the complaints from school districts about red tape impeding dismissals for non-egregious misconduct and unsatisfactory performance.

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.”

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