Op-Ed: Questions of tenure, union's role

Mandy Redfern, president of the LCUSD teachers' union, recently derided efforts to reform teacher tenure, suggesting tenure was far from “the problem” (“Blaming teachers union is wrong tactic,” op-ed, April 22).

She minimizes both the laboriousness of the process and the role of the union.

It has been suggested that tenure is simply notice of underperformance, opportunity to improve and proper documentation. In reality, tenure represents a mortal lock over one's job and can cause unintended damage to students.

When a school district wants to dismiss a tenured teacher, he/she is entitled to a third-party panel hearing that is stacked against districts. In California, the vast majority of cases that make it to the panel arise from gross misconduct — like sexual abuse — and even though only the strongest cases are pursued, over a third are unsuccessful. Since 1997, only 20% of upheld dismissals had to do with the quality of teaching.

This process is lengthy — never less than one year, and usually multiple. It costs districts thousands of dollars — that's before incurring legal fees if the district chooses to pursue dismissal (where costs move into six figures).

Meanwhile, classroom after classroom of students suffer.

However, despite these challenges, we must shoulder the burdens and put resources toward the pursuit of this process. Both the district and the union must work through this archaic process in good faith to best serve students.

The idea that “the union will make sure that due process rights are followed and that [teachers] are not let go for frivolous or inappropriate reasons” belies the reality of unions' behavior and ignores the toll it takes on our community and students.

Take the Los Angeles Unified School District teacher whose departure was negotiated when it surfaced he sexually abused elementary students. Though law enforcement charged him with 23 counts of lewd conduct (of which there are 600 photos), the LAUSD school board feared they would not have immediate access to police documents and opted to pay a $40,000 settlement, rather than pursue the laborious, expensive and uncertain process of dismissing a tenured teacher — a process “facilitated” by the union.

Despite independent investigations confirming misconduct, the La Cañada teachers union “facilitated” that process in a highly publicized case this year.

Actions to obstruct documentation of underperformance, too, are not atypical. Indeed, the La Cañada union has filed grievances against LCUSD on multiple occasions to limit administrators' capacity to document underperformance.

For example, not long ago a teacher was disciplined for putting student information online. There was no dispute about the misconduct (the teacher was required to take the material down) but the union filed a grievance, claiming the administrator should have directed complaining parents to the teacher first. These grievances are costly and subject decisions to often-biased, always-binding arbitrators.

To suggest tenure is some benign entitlement to due process — and to suggest the union is merely interested in the facilitation of that process — is misleading, at best. No one is “blaming teachers unions and teachers,” nor is anyone seeking to “take away what little dignity is left in the profession.”

This notion conflates the actions of the union with the work that individual teachers do in classrooms every day, for which we all have nothing but respect, appreciation and admiration.

No system that entitles sex offenders to payouts is a professionalizing one. We bestow dignity upon a profession by supporting the rigorous maintenance of standards, and ensuring underperformance is dealt with swiftly. Tenure is not only misaligned with this goal, but, quite frankly, undermines it.

Going forward, we all agree with the need for a better evaluation process. Thankfully, we share this common ground and anticipate working together in our effort to provide better feedback to teachers, and to support them in the shared endeavor to constantly improve services to this community.

ANDREW BLUMENFELD is a member of the La Cañada school board, but is speaking for himself, not the board, in this op-ed piece. He can be reached at aj.blumenfeld@gmail.com.

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