Settlement cheaper than firing, La Cañada school district officials say

The process for firing problem teachers at La Cañada public schools is so burdensome that officials have decided it's easier — and cheaper — to pay at least some of them to leave.

Since 2011, school officials have paid $311,000 to two teachers in lieu of dealing with a firing process viewed as costly, time-consuming and a gamble in terms of outcomes. Another two were placed on administrative leave, and later quit without a monetary settlement, said district Supt. Wendy Sinnette.

As part of a deal that went into effect Sunday, veteran eighth-grade science teacher Joy Walters resigned her post in exchange for a $96,000 payout plus two years of medical and dental insurance on top of retirement benefits, according to a copy of a May 13 settlement agreement.

Walters, who declined to comment for this story, had been ordered to participate in a performance improvement program for more than a year with mixed results prior to her departure, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Patricia Hager said.

No teacher has been fired for cause since at least 2011, she added.

Last year the school board authorized a $215,000 payout and five years of health benefits in exchange for the resignation of Gabrielle Leko, a La Cañada High School math teacher accused of using abusive language in the classroom and referring to a student as "Jew boy."

Board members had voted to initiate dismissal proceedings against Leko but preempted that process with the settlement.

While school district boosters may cringe at the thought of district funds being spent to remove teachers from the classroom, former board member Cindy Wilcox and others say the payouts are money well-spent.

Firing a teacher is "an arduous process, an expensive process, and there's no easy way out, so school districts are left with a choice of lesser evils. The uncertainty of the [firing] process, compounded with its potential financial burden, makes it a very unattractive option," school board member Andrew Blumenfeld said.

In La Cañada, as in school districts throughout the state, administrators must provide detailed documentation of a teacher's shortcomings and provide multiple opportunities for improvement before issuing a dismissal notice.

The notice triggers hearings before an administrative law judge and two former teachers who decide whether to fire or reinstate the teacher.

The hearing process typically takes from six to 18 months, racking up six-figure legal costs for the school district and a high likelihood the teacher will be reinstated, said Dennis Meyers, assistant director of government relations for the California School Boards Association.

Wilcox blames teachers unions for hamstringing the power of school boards, but Hager said the La Cañada Teachers Association has been "very positive and very progressive" in working with the district to improve problem educators.

In 2011, La Cañada Unified also revived its once-dormant Peer Assistance and Review program, which assigns exemplary teachers to assist and mentor those who are struggling in the classroom.

The program typically lasts six months to a year and concludes with a panel of three teachers and two administrators who determine whether the teacher has made improvements, according to the union's collective bargaining agreement. If a teacher does not improve, an administrator could then start the six to 18-month dismissal process.

There are currently three La Cañada Unified teachers receiving help through Peer Assistance and Review — two assigned by administrators demanding improvement and another who volunteered to seek help, Hager said.

Even before the program resumed, parents had lodged numerous complaints about Walters and district officials were already scrutinizing her teaching performance, former PTSA organizer Leslie Helbing said.

When Helbing's son Ryan had Walters as a teacher four years ago, former Principal Jackie Luzak monitored Walters' classes so frequently that Helbing's son Ryan was paired with Luzak as a science lab partner, Helbing said.

In emails this week, La Cañada Teachers Association President Mandy Redfern said she did not know enough about Walters' situation to comment on her case, but emphasized the union's commitment to a teacher evaluation process that ensures quality instruction.

"The union is not interested in shielding ineffective teachers," Redfern wrote. "The evaluation process provides multiple opportunities for administrators to identify poor performance. Once this is identified, the teacher must be afforded the opportunity to improve."


Follow Joe Piasecki on Twitter: @JoePiasecki.

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