By George B. Sanchez, Staff Writer | LA Newspaper Group/ Daily News
23 April 2009 -- Embarking on a monumental task that some say is doomed to fail, Los Angeles Unified school officials are taking aim at state laws that make it virtually impossible to fire teachers.
Facing unprecedented layoffs, including 3,500 teachers with less than two year's experience, district officials and their allies say they need the power to cull bad teachers from the ranks or students will suffer in the classroom.
"It's about weeding out people who shouldn't be working with our kids," said Tamar Galatzan, a board of education member who represents part of the San Fernando Valley.
On Tuesday, the school board is scheduled to vote on a pair of resolutions to change state teacher protections as well as internal teacher promotion policy. Among them, they will seek to rewrite codes that favor teacher and administrator seniority during layoffs that allow senior staff to "bump" less senior staff out of their jobs, creating a domino effect that leads to the loss of new, nontenured teachers.
Also, the board has proposed a new evaluation method that would automatically fire teachers if they received two consecutive poor performance reviews. A better evaluation method, say district officials, will improve teaching morale and student achievement.
If approved, the measures will kick off a drawn-out fight with California's powerful teachers unions, who hotly oppose any changes to existing laws. The rules protecting teacher jobs are so effective that just 31 teachers have lost their jobs in the state in the past five years.
Teachers union officials say employees deserve job protection so that they can not be arbitrarily fired by a principal with a grudge.
"Does the public want vocal teachers to be fired because an administrator doesn't want to have a voice of opposition?" said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.
District officials missed the Feb. 27 deadline to introduce new legislation this year, so if they do decide to move forward they will have to wait until 2010.
Still, LAUSD board members and Superintendent Ramon Cortines - with the support of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa - say it is time to overhaul the decades-old legal codes that protect teachers by seniority, but pay scant attention to competency and performance.
While recognizing their proposal will start a long struggle with the teachers unions and likely unsettle political alliances in Sacramento, board members say with so much attention on public education right now, there's no better time to begin.
California school districts do not have the authority to fire teachers, according to state law. If a teacher is targeted for dismissal, teachers have the right to take their case to an administrative hearing, where an administrative judge and two school officials hear the case and decide.
In the past five years, 31 teachers across the state have lost their jobs after administrative hearings, said Kathleen Collins, an attorney for LAUSD.
Approximately 149 LAUSD teachers are currently awaiting a dismissal hearing and have been removed from the classroom. All but 17 - a total of 132 people - continue to receive a paycheck, according to district records.
"There is an incentive for a bad employee to fight because they continue to get paid," Galatzan said.
The two motions were first introduced by board members Marlene Canter and Galatzan on April 14, the same day the board voted 4-3 to lay off nearly 7,000 teachers.
The layoffs were prompted by the district's budget deficit, which some fear could reach $1.3billion over three years.
The layoffs come at a difficult time for Villaraigosa, who this academic year began overseeing 10 schools under a partnership with the district. He has begun to speak out against the layoffs, which could effectively cost him all of the principals and assistant principals and about 200 teachers at the 10 schools.
"I believe in seniority, but you can take things to a point where it becomes unfair to other people, too," Villaraigosa said. "Why should administrators be able to bump into the school? They should bump other administrators but not all the way down."
The motion to change state law, Canter explained, is the first step in an attempt to fix a broken dismissal system.
"These conversations are being held all over town," Canter said.
The second resolution, authored by Canter, calls for changes to the district's internal process that promotes teachers to tenure.
Currently, teachers become permanent after two years with little internal scrutiny.
"It's a passive process," Canter said. "If nothing is done, teachers still become permanent."
The day after voting to lay off teachers, Canter flew to Sacramento to discuss the resolutions with state lawmakers Gloria Romero, Julia Brownley, Karen Bass and Secretary of Education Glen Thomas.
"This type of legislation would be a difficult challenge," said Santiago Jackson, director of LAUSD's governmental affairs unit. "Similar attempts have been made in the past but they failed due to opposition from the California Teachers Association and UTLA."
Mike O'Sullivan, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, had an even bleaker view.
"It has no chance of passing," O'Sullivan said.
The head of the Los Angeles teachers union said the problem is not with state laws that protect teachers, but principals who fail to help teachers become better educators.
"If administrators would do their jobs and identify teachers who are struggling, give them guidance and assistance; and if those people do not improve, then they should be written up," Duffy said. "If administrators did their job, then we could deal with the issue now."
Over the past months as district officials crept slowly toward making mass layoffs, parents demanded that young and probationary teachers be spared. But parents also understand it is a delicate issue that must balance reform while maintaining protections.
"Many parents feel the seniority should be revised but teachers need protection against discrimination and favoritism," said Diana Kunce, whose children attend Westwood Charter School. "We're interested in true collaboration and true reform. This is a complex issue."