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Settlement cheaper than firing, La Cañada school district officials say

La Canada schools find it cheaper to pay bad teachers to leave.

July 03, 2013|By Joe Piasecki, joe.piasecki@latimes.com

The process for firing problem teachers at La Cañada public schools is so burdensome that officials have decided it's easier — and cheaper — to pay at least some of them to leave.

Since 2011, school officials have paid $311,000 to two teachers in lieu of dealing with a firing process viewed as costly, time-consuming and a gamble in terms of outcomes. Another two were placed on administrative leave, and later quit without a monetary settlement, said district Supt. Wendy Sinnette.

As part of a deal that went into effect Sunday, veteran eighth-grade science teacher Joy Walters resigned her post in exchange for a $96,000 payout plus two years of medical and dental insurance on top of retirement benefits, according to a copy of a May 13 settlement agreement.

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Walters, who declined to comment for this story, had been ordered to participate in a performance improvement program for more than a year with mixed results prior to her departure, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Patricia Hager said.

No teacher has been fired for cause since at least 2011, she added.

Last year the school board authorized a $215,000 payout and five years of health benefits in exchange for the resignation of Gabrielle Leko, a La Cañada High School math teacher accused of using abusive language in the classroom and referring to a student as "Jew boy."

Board members had voted to initiate dismissal proceedings against Leko but preempted that process with the settlement.

While school district boosters may cringe at the thought of district funds being spent to remove teachers from the classroom, former board member Cindy Wilcox and others say the payouts are money well-spent.

Firing a teacher is "an arduous process, an expensive process, and there's no easy way out, so school districts are left with a choice of lesser evils. The uncertainty of the [firing] process, compounded with its potential financial burden, makes it a very unattractive option," school board member Andrew Blumenfeld said.

In La Cañada, as in school districts throughout the state, administrators must provide detailed documentation of a teacher's shortcomings and provide multiple opportunities for improvement before issuing a dismissal notice.

The notice triggers hearings before an administrative law judge and two former teachers who decide whether to fire or reinstate the teacher.

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