Piece of Mind: The lessons taught by a disgraced teacher

As dismaying as it may seem to some, I've come to the conclusion that the reported $215,000 payout to La Cañada High School math teacher Gabrielle Leko was probably the wisest course our school district officials could have taken.

We had braced for a six-figure settlement on the teacher, so it wasn't a huge surprise when, in response to our paper's public records request, we learned exactly how much Leko will receive over the coming few years after she high-tails it out of the district at the end of this semester.

My first reaction when I read the amount Leko will collect was one of at least mild disgust, along the lines of “no bad deed goes unrewarded.” It goes against everything I believe when news flashes tell me that someone who has successfully negotiated a deal to avoid being fired will reap a financial reward.

We all know industrious and stand-up people, individuals who would never utter the kind of words Leko did in her classroom, who have lost their jobs due to down-sizing during our prolonged recession. They have not brought shame upon their employers, nor have they walked away with a promise of enough money to tide them over for a few years. Oh, and they also haven't received roughly five years of medical coverage from their former employers to take them to retirement age, as will Leko.

But, in the scheme of things, and despite the fact our district is cash-strapped, the Leko payout was probably the best ending to this sad story we could have hoped for. The teacher was not without her supporters and, had the case reached a courtroom, she might have prevailed. As the school board president is quoted as saying this week, this settlement probably saved the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Of course the cost to La Cañada goes beyond the financial. There are wounds on all sides.

It could be argued that the case, illuminated at the time of a school board election, cost an incumbent her job—and might, rightfully or not, come into play during the next campaign.

Students who felt disparaged by Leko in the classroom no doubt will remember the pain for a long time to come, while the pupils who found her to be a great teacher will consider her negotiated departure a travesty. Parents on both sides of the issue will share their outrage.

In truth, we have all lost. Our high-achieving district and its award-winning high school have suffered blows to their reputations that reflect on the community.

Where does this leave us? Picking up pieces, doling out dollars and, hopefully, learning lessons handed to us by a disgraced teacher.

CAROL CORMACI is managing editor. Reach her at carol.cormaci@latimes.com.

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