Dan Walters: California Legislature drops ball on abusive teachers

10/21/2013 12:00 AM

10/06/2014 7:07 PM

The Wall Street Journal published a lengthy, front-page article the other day about two municipal employees in a Greek city who murdered its mayor “in the grisly conclusion to a suspected embezzlement scheme.”

The two killers were sent to prison, but as it turns out, the Journal reported, they cannot be fired under Greek civil-service law, so they remain on the city’s payroll, basically for life.

The tale says much about Greece and its chronic fiscal and economic crisis. If you can’t remove assassins from the public payroll, do you really have any hope of getting your financial house in order?

We may chuckle at Greece’s folly, but the case also raises a question: Other than degree, isn’t what didn’t happen to those two murderers very similar to what didn’t happen to Mark Berndt, a Los Angeles teacher so depraved that he fed his semen to young children in what he called “tasting games” during a years-long pattern of sexual abuse?

The Los Angeles Unified School District wanted to fire Berndt, of course, but he invoked his rights under complex state laws that, much like those Greek laws, make it virtually impossible to fire a teacher regardless of the cause.

Ultimately, the school district paid Berndt, who faces 23 felony charges, $40,000 to resign – after he had continued to be paid and accrue pension credits for many months. It also paid $30 million to the families of abused children.

Almost immediately after the case erupted last year, state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, introduced legislation to make it much easier for abusive teachers to be fired, and his bill zipped through the Senate. But it died in an Assembly committee when the powerful California Teachers Union objected, saying it would violate teachers’ due-process rights.

This year, the CTA offered its own bill on teacher dismissals, carried by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, saying that it would streamline the process without violating teachers’ rights.

The Legislature, in a demonstration of the union’s political muscle, sent it to Gov. Jerry Brown despite objections from school boards, among others, that it actually would make firing teachers for cause even more laborious and uncertain than it has been.

Brown vetoed the bill, agreeing with the critics that it would make the discharge process “too rigid and could create new problems.”

However, the veto merely left the present system intact, meaning that were another Berndt-like case to arise, an abusive teacher could once again game the stacked system to avoid discharge and perhaps get another payoff.

Brown said in his veto message that he wants the Legislature to improve the system. As long as the CTA and other teacher unions remain implacably opposed to anything that would fundamentally change the process, however, nothing will happen.

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