December 10 2012

Hotel California: Paychecks and Pensions for Accused Teachers

Vicki E. Alger

Welcome to the 21st century Hotel California. The number of Los Angeles Unified School District teachers warehoused in administrative offices, also referred to as “rubber rooms,” for alleged misconduct has doubled in the past 18 months to nearly 300 according to the LA Daily News.

The cost is staggering: $1.4 million a month just in salaries for teachers under investigation, plus another $865,000 for substitutes.

LAUSD’s approach has changed 180 degrees since revelations surfaced earlier this year that officials had ignored on-going cases of student abuse by a two teachers. One teacher has since received a 25-years jail sentenced; and the other’s case is still pending.

Local union leaders say the zero-tolerance policy goes overboard and is an excuse to get rid of teachers officials don’t like. Teachers say the process takes too long, and it’s hard to clear their names if wrongly accused. District officials respond that “the process may be time-consuming and frustrating, but it's the best they can do as they try to balance student safety and teachers' rights.”

The process is also a problem of the education establishment’s own making.

Controversy surrounding “rubber rooms” for teachers is hardly new, and is it not limited to schools in Los Angeles. The California State Auditor's office investigated LAUSD’s handling of teacher misconduct and found that it generally followed state law, under which, “There is no statewide mechanism to communicate among school districts when a classified employee at any school district separates by dismissal, resignation, or settlement during the course of an investigation involving misconduct with students.” (See also here and here.) The bureaucratic bumbling by LAUSD is mind-blowing according to the state audit:

The district could not adequately explain some delays in disciplining or dismissing certain employees suspected of child abuse—we noted an eight-month delay in one case between the time the district's investigations unit issued a report concerning the allegation and when the principal took action.

The district paid $3 million in salaries to 20 employees whom the district has housed…the longest for allegations of misconduct against students, including one employee who has been housed for 4.5 years.

But the incompetence reaches all the way to Sacramento, as the state audit notes:

Our review found that the length of time and the expense of the process for dismissing the district's certificated employees suspected of child abuse contribute to the district's entering into settlement agreements rather than continuing with attempts to dismiss the employees.

This summer the Assembly Education Committee rejected a measure that would have made it easier to remove certified predators from the classroom. The Los Angeles Times reported, “The bill was vehemently opposed by the California Teachers Assn., United Teachers Los Angeles and other labor unions, which called it an attack on due process rights.”

As it stands the process is so cumbersome few California school districts even bother. Out of some 270,000 full-time teachers statewide, “only 667 dismissal cases were filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings between January 2003 and March 2012… Only 130 actually went to hearing, and 82 resulted in dismissals,” according to the LA Times.

California Teachers Empowerment Network President and retired teacher Larry Sand said union opposition had more to do with power and money than due process:

The CTA’s real objection to SB 1530 concerned significant changes to the Commission on Professional Competence, which is perhaps the most egregious aspect of the current dismissal process. The three-member panel consists of an administrative law judge and two union-sponsored teachers, and it has the final say on whether a teacher stays or goes. A CPC review can consume a year or more, all while the teacher under scrutiny remains on the payroll and adds to his pension fund. SB 1530 would have eliminated the two teachers from the panel and made the administrative law judge’s role advisory. The judge would still hear testimony, but he would deliver his opinion to the school board, which would then render the decision. (Incidentally, the bill would also deny pension benefits to any public employee convicted of sex abuse involving a minor.)

Welcome to Hotel California. No meaningful process to distinguish educators from predators. Students’ safety is pitted against teachers’ rights and reputations. Taxpayers are stuck paying the tab for their paychecks and pensions, but no pink champagne on ice or parental choice.

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