Tripping over public policies

Today, two gripes for the price of one.

First, a bureaucratic nightmare involving an award-winning Los Angeles teacher who wants to teach FOR FREE. Naturally, he can't get the go-ahead, even though the district is strapped for cash.

And then I've got the case of a terminally ill woman who has been locked up 27 years for the murder of her violently abusive boyfriend, even though the key witness against her was a liar, the district attorney's office agreed four years ago that it was time to let her go and a state parole board has recommended her release.

Let's start with the teacher, Bruce Kravets, of Palms Middle School in L.A. Unified. Actually, let's start with my e-mail in-box, which filled up Tuesday morning when a small army of Palms parents took turns asking me to do something -- anything -- to make sure Kravets is on campus when school begins in three weeks.

"He is the reason many parents send their children to Palms," one parent said.

My favorite message was like a plea for a hostage release.

"Let Mr. Kravets teach!"

I had already heard about the strange case of Mr. Kravets and began looking into the matter last week. Kravets, winner of a Jaime Escalante award, received special training years ago to teach logic, along with calculus, algebra and geometry, and his triumphs have been legendary.

"I can't say enough incredible things about this man," said Principal Bonnie Murrow, who told me Kravets has worked on Saturdays and Sundays with students who wanted a little extra help at a school that is considered one of the best in L.A. Unified.

Kravets chose to retire because after 42 years of service, with only three sick days in all that time, his retirement pay would be significantly higher than his regular salary. (This kind of deal could partially explain the district's cash flow problems.) But he still has a burning desire to teach, and he retired with the understanding that he'd be allowed to carry on at Palms in the same capacity, only as a volunteer.

Little did he know that despite the support of his principal, he had entered a world in which no good deed goes unpunished -- a world where questions abound and common sense goes to die.

Was it against the law for a volunteer to be a full-time teacher of record? Was it a matter for the union to decide, or the district, or perhaps some greater authority?

Weeks passed, with countless e-mails and phone calls by Kravets to district and union officials. He said he didn't want to anger anyone. He just wanted to teach.

"I kept getting shuttled from one office to another, and I kept getting different stories," said Kravets, whom I reached by phone Tuesday in Germany, where he and his loved ones spend summers in a family home.

It was German poet Friedrich von Schiller, by the way, whose quote Kravets finds particularly applicable:

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain."

There was but one fleeting moment of optimism, back when Supt. Ray Cortines got wind of the situation and personally called Kravets to say: "You are extraordinary."

Kravets recalls Cortines saying he'd get things moving.

So what's the problem?

Justo Avila, deputy chief of human resources at L.A. Unified, told me Kravets is more than welcome to volunteer full time at Palms, giving guidance to students and/or teachers. But Avila said that if Kravets were to continue teaching his class, a laid-off teacher would remain unemployed, and the district might lose funding because the teacher of record wouldn't be an employee.

"Pay him a dollar or whatever it has to be," said Murrow, who would rather have Kravets teach the classes he has been teaching than turn him into a tutor or peer counselor.

She said the claim that Kravets would be taking the job of a paid teacher is nonsense. If he left and never returned, she wouldn't get to replace him because he's counted differently, given his specialized training and an arcane system of categorizing teachers. But if he were allowed to stay on as a volunteer, class sizes would be reduced for several teachers.

"We're in a crisis in California," Murrow said, noting that budget cuts have cost her some of her best teachers. "This is a no-brainer."

An apt description of my next subject.

As you might have heard, we've got a prison overcrowding problem and the possibility that thousands of inmates will be turned loose to help balance the state budget. But unless Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger answers a plea from advocates for battered women by a Friday deadline, Deborah Peagler will remain behind bars in Chowchilla, at least until she is buried. Peagler, 49, has been ravaged by lung cancer and is not long for this world, according to her attorneys.

As Peagler herself admitted to me by phone last year, she was no angel as a young woman in Los Angeles, and she definitely played a role in the 1982 murder of boyfriend Oliver Wilson. Her story is that she asked two men to beat him up and scare him away from her because he beat and whipped her, forced her into prostitution and molested her daughter.

Instead, the two men killed Wilson and both are serving life sentences. Peagler and her attorneys argue that she pleaded guilty to murder and took a sentence of 25 to life only because she was led to believe the L.A. County district attorney's office would otherwise seek the death penalty.

Her attorneys argue that because of a later change in the law, a battery victim would likely face a lesser charge today. Then there's the matter of a key witness against Peagler who lied about the case, according to the district attorney's own records, and a tentative agreement by Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley in 2005 to offer a deal for voluntary manslaughter, "which more accurately describes the defendant's criminal conduct."

Cooley's minions later said he didn't know all the details or he wouldn't have spoken up.

All I can figure is that Cooley was so embarrassed by that admission that he just can't let it go.

This month, he wrote to Schwarzenegger urging him to ignore the parole board recommendation that Peagler be released. Peagler has changed her story repeatedly, Cooley argued, after conspiring to have Wilson killed and splitting the insurance money with the killers.

Even if she was beaten, Cooley said, her actions did not "excuse her criminal conduct."

Perhaps not.

But Peagler has served 27 years of a 25-to-life term in a case filled with questions, the last of which is where she'll die.

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