Culver City Teacher Claims Harassment Over Cartoon Campaign, Files Grievance

Times Staff Writer

Howard Bennett, a Culver City High School teacher who launched a cartoon campaign last year belittling his union's efforts to win increased health benefits, said union officers and a school district superintendent are trying to harass him into silence.

The 58-year-old English teacher on Monday filed grievances against them with the state Public Employment Relations Board.

Since November Bennett has been sending his fellow teachers cartoons that pointedly depict the Culver City Federation of Teachers' failure to extend its health benefits past age 65. He said he has been under scrutiny by the union and the Culver City Unified School District and has been singled out for enforcement of minor rules violations.

"They are trying to shut me up and get me fired," he said.

Bennett was reprimanded in writing on April 11 for not calling the school to say he would be out another week recovering from recent eye surgery. This is the first and only negative letter in a personnel file full of commendations and awards, he said.

Over the past few months, he has been ordered to stop using teachers' mailboxes to distribute his cartoons and was questioned by Principal Glenn Cook for missing a faculty meeting, he said, adding that both rules are routinely broken by others without consequence.

"All you have to do is stand up on an issue that the district and bargaining agent refuse to deal with, then God help you because no one else will," he said. "You will go from being the best to being the worst. You'll go full circle in a flash."

Joe Nazzaretta, federation vice president, said the union favors increased health benefits, but the school district cannot afford it.

The union disagrees with the way Bennett has tried to force the issue, but agrees with his cause and has not harassed him or tried to get him fired, said Nazzaretta, a band teacher at Culver City Junior High School.

"We're all working together. There's no way the union would ever do such a thing," he said. "I would be the last person on earth who would like to see a fellow teacher lose his position."

Nazzaretta wrote a note to Bennett asking him to stop mailing cartoons to his home. He sent a copy to Ralph Villani, assistant superintendent of personnel services for the Culver City School District, because Bennett ignored his earlier requests to stop.

"I thought it was an invasion of my privacy," Nazzaretta said.

Federation President Diane Kaiser said Bennett's use of teachers' mailboxes was a contract violation, and the union asked Villani to stop him. The contract prohibits use of the mailboxes except by the school district and the union.

She said if other teachers are using the boxes, they are doing so without knowledge of the union or district.

Despite his infractions of the rules and his opposition to the union, Bennett's job is not in jeopardy, Kaiser said. Kaiser's union is being challenged by the rival California Teachers Assn. in a decertification election May 24, which will determine which group will be the district's bargaining agent.

'Encourage People to Stand Up'

"It's very difficult to relieve a teacher," she said. "If they were to relieve him it would be for his performance in the classroom. I don't personally believe that missing a faculty meeting is justifiable cause for someone to lose his job."

Villani said the district is not trying to fire Bennett.

"The district does not tell principals to get rid of employees that are doing things that irritate us," he said. "We encourage people to stand up and say whatever's on their minds."

He said his letter reprimanding Bennett was meant to remind him of the district's policies for absences and substitute teachers.

"Most of our teachers follow the rules. Why he didn't, I don't know," he said. "If he feels harassed, maybe that's his problem."

But Bennett called the district's actions "standard operating procedure" for firing people who have not committed a serious offense.

"It's a mosaic," he said. "We get this, we get this, we get this, then we fire you."

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