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April 8, 2014
Editorial: Faced with an initiative, teachers union blinks on discipline bill

RP_MATH_TEACHER_Elementary_School.JPG(April 8 - By the Editorial Board)

The threat of a ballot initiative did the trick, persuading the California Teachers Association to negotiate a new process for teacher dismissal.

EdVoice, an educational advocacy group based in West Sacramento, titled its proposed initiative: "Stop Child Molesters, Sexual Abusers and Drug Dealers from Working in California Schools Act."

Attorney General Kamala Harris made it more neutral: "School Employees. Dismissal or suspension for egregious misconduct." But her ballot summary remained crystal clear: "Speeds process and eliminates 4-year statute of limitations to dismiss or suspend school employees accused of egregious misconduct, defined to include child abuse, sexual abuse of minors, sexual assault on minors or adults, and certain drug offenses."

Voters surely would have approved this initiative, after the Legislature in 2012 and 2013 had shown itself unable to buck CTA opposition to pass a bill streamlining the current labyrinthine teacher dismissal process.

Even the high-profile case of Mark Berndt, a Miramonte Elementary School teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District charged with committing lewd acts on 23 children from 2005 to 2010, couldn't persuade the Legislature to come up with a reasonable process for handling allegations of egregious misconduct.

But now the old one-size-fits-all process that treated dismissal for lewd acts or drug dealing the same as chronic tardiness is gone in a new bill, Assembly Bill 215 by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo.

The bill creates a separate, fast-track hearing process after a school board has voted to fire a teacher for misconduct involving sex, drugs or violent offenses against children.

EdVoice promises to withdraw the initiative if the bill becomes law by mid-June. Gov. Jerry Brown has said he would sign it.

Under the bill's fast-track process, a hearing would begin 60 days after a suspended or dismissed teacher makes a request. The hearing would have to be completed within seven months. In the past, a hearing might not get underway for months and could drag on for years.

The hearing would be conducted by an administrative law judge, not the current three-person panel that includes two teachers, one chosen by the suspended or dismissed teacher and one by the school district.

Judges would move these cases ahead of less serious cases. Delays could occur only for good cause. No more endless procedural delays.

Equally important, the bill would end the practice of cutting deals to expunge evidence of bad acts from teachers' personnel records. In the past, school districts too often would sign settlements in which they would agree to remove credible evidence of misconduct from a teacher's record and not report dismissals to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. With concealed records, these teachers could move to other districts.

The bill also seeks to clarify that school districts can suspend teachers without pay. If districts do suspend teachers with pay, the bill would allow districts to recover salary and benefits if they win.

To protect the innocent, those making false allegations would face serious penalties.

Teachers facing dismissal because of poor performance still would have their cases heard by a three-person panel, including one teacher chosen by the district and one by the accused teacher.

The Senate Education Committee is expected to hear the bill on April 23. After two years of failing to resolve this issue, the Legislature should get AB 215 to the governor's desk. California needs a workable process for firing teachers in the rare cases of extreme misconduct, while still protecting teachers from wrongful termination.