Every time a school district considers firing a teacher, administrators contemplate the possibility of a giant bill. Firing one bad teacher can cost taxpayers up to $100,000.
At that price, public schools try to avoid it.
But a lazy or burned-out teacher can ruin school for 25 children from September to June - not a small price for the students or the nation.
Earlier this year, President Clinton and Education Secretary Richard Riley called on schools to improve classroom teaching by rewarding good teachers, helping mediocre ones and firing the worst.
It sounds easy, but the reality is nightmarishly complex.
Like other professions, teaching has its share of slackers and burnouts. But it is much harder to get rid of a bad teacher than it is to fire, say, an accountant or an engineer, because of strong unions and state laws favoring teachers.
Parents grow frustrated when principals appear to ignore bad teachers year after year. They don’t see how some principals try to help poor teachers.
Teachers and other school employees gripe about the bad apples, but feel powerless.
All sides admit something is wrong, but disagree on how to fix the problem.
“Everyone knows there are teachers out there who shouldn’t be in the classroom,” said one Spokane-area public school employee who asked not to be named, fearing she would spotlight criticism on her school. “One teacher was verbally abusive, degrading. Telling kids they’re stupid, they can’t learn anything. They suffered in there.
“It wasn’t like we didn’t report it. … But the principal said, ‘At her age, she’s going to be retiring soon.”’
Principals and teachers tell researchers that one of every 10 teachers is incompetent and shouldn’t be at the front of a class. That would equal about 400 teachers in Spokane County.
Yet in Spokane County’s 12 largest school districts, teachers lose their jobs for incompetence at an annual rate of just 1 per thousand - four teachers a year.
A survey of North Idaho school districts also showed few teachers are put on probation, even fewer dismissed.
That’s because firing a bad teacher resembles a game of Chutes and Ladders where any slip sends school districts back to start. Firing a teacher can easily burn $40,000 in legal fees - big money for districts trying to balance budgets.
In misconduct cases, Washington law requires districts to pay teachers while they appeal their firings to a hearing officer. With delays, the taxpayers’ cost can near six figures.
Spokane School District 81 still pays Sacajawea Middle School teacher Jeanell Malone her top-scale $46,740 salary, nearly 18 months after putting her on paid leave and nine months after firing her for repeated angry outbursts. Due to unusual circumstances, Malone’s hearing has been delayed several times; no date is set. She refused to discuss her case on the record.
State law and union contracts dictate how a teacher can be fired. It is so cumbersome, so impossible to conduct without bitterness and infighting among school staff that principals privately admit they avoid it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean bad teachers stay in the classroom, some educators insist. People are often “counseled out” rather than fired, said Judy Drake, director of secondary education in Coeur d’Alene.
“If someone is struggling, there is a lot of counseling,” Drake said. “Every year it happens that someone leaves by mutual agreement.”
When a bad teacher doesn’t agree to leave, simple human compassion can make it hard to fire them.
“You have to say, ‘You no longer have a place to work here.’ That’s affecting their earning ability, their career, their family,” said Post Falls schools Superintendent Richard Harris. “I’ve had grown men break down and cry.”
So some bad teachers are allowed to keep teaching, whittling away at public schools’ reputations, bruising students’ self-esteem and making them dislike education.
North Pines Junior High School was one of the few schools to fire a teacher for poor performance last school year.
The Central Valley School District said Joyce Steele’s “conduct amounts to serious behavioral problems.” The district said she did not supervise students and did not treat a student’s vomiting as a medical emergency.
She denies the charges. The district continued to pay the special education teacher’s $42,000 salary until her contract expired Aug. 31.
Legally, a school district can fire a teacher for one of two broad reasons: incompetence, such as failure to keep classroom order, or misconduct, such as sexually harassing or hitting students.
In the past five years, less than 1 percent of Spokane County’s 4,000 public schoolteachers lost their jobs for either incompetence or misconduct.
Thirteen teachers were fired for misconduct. Another 22 were fired (or convinced to resign during the firing process) for incompetence - an annual rate of one per thousand. Half those teachers were in the first two years of their careers, a period when they have less job protection.
Most cases were cheap to settle, costing districts a few hundred dollars in legal bills. Each one, however, carried the risk of costing $30,000 more if a teacher appeals to a hearing officer (as only two of the 22 did), and another $50,000 or more if the teacher goes to court.
Washington’s system for plucking bad-apple teachers from schools marked its 20th birthday this year.
No one celebrated. Even the attorney who helped write the law, John Binns of Tacoma, said it only works in extreme cases of incompetence.
“If a district is willing to throw resources into it, train people, throw money at it, they can get rid of the worst,” Binns said. “When you think about it, that’s not a very good system. It doesn’t deal with mediocrity very well.”
Jumping through hoops
Teachers enjoy more job protection than most people for three reasons.
First, they are public employees with a constitutional right to due process.
The 14th Amendment bars “any state” from depriving “any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”
Courts take the stand that school districts cannot fire employees without giving notice, the right to hearings and the chance to answer the charges. To do otherwise, would deprive teachers of “property” - their expected paycheck.
Second, since the 1920s, tenure laws in states across the country have given teachers the right to expect continued employment after a certain period of time, usually two or three years. These laws, which predate teachers’ unions, were meant to protect teachers from nepotism and favoritism.
Third, strong unions fight to protect teachers’ due-process rights and tenure laws.
Since the 1960s, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers - whose combined membership totals nearly 3 million - have grown in size and clout.
The Washington Education Association, an NEA affiliate, has 65,000 members. Its political arm was the fourth largest contributor to state political campaigns in 1992.
The union gave $217,775 to candidates and caucuses, mostly Democrats, that year, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.
The union’s political friends listen to its lobbyists on education issues, including laws governing how teachers can be fired.
Twenty years ago, school attorney Binns said he felt like Don Quixote jousting with windmills as he fought in the Legislature for the current law. That law, although flawed in Binns’ view, favors school districts more than the one it replaced.
“The WEA employed three or four lobbyists throughout the session who spent full time attempting to kill or mutilate the bill,” Binns told school administrators in a 1976 speech.
“Scores of education association presidents and other representatives blitzed the Legislature on weekends for the same purpose. At the 11th hour, WEA persuaded organized labor to join the battle to kill (the bill).” The bill passed by one vote.
“I sure wouldn’t do it again,” Binns said recently.
The law lays out a step-by-step way to fire incompetent teachers. Any principal’s flub will catch the eye of the teachers’ union, said school district attorneys and personnel directors.
“I believe in due process for everyone, but sometimes the pendulum swings too far in one direction,” said North Pines Junior High Principal Dave Bouge, who put Steele on probation.
“We need a happy medium where the employees’ rights are protected, but so are the rights of the students, the parents and the other employees.”
Bouge wouldn’t discuss Steele, or even mention her by name, on the advice of a school attorney.
Bouge called the probation - his first in six years as a principal - “the most intense thing I’ve done.”
He estimated the process swallowed 80 percent of his time over three months.
Every Sunday during the probation, Bouge put in eight to 12 hours catching up with his other work. A couple of nights a week, he worked three to four hours.
“It was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do,” Bouge said. “But I would do it again if I needed to.”
After Steele failed to improve, Central Valley Superintendent Wally Stanley suspended her on May 1.
In a letter to Steele, Stanley said her behavior “endangers the health, safety and well-being of students. Further your conduct is unprofessional, inappropriate and a flagrant disregard of generally recognized professional standards.”
Steele, 62, doesn’t see it that way. “The issue in my case … is an incompetent and punitive administration,” she said. Steele is fighting her firing.
She believes she was discriminated against because she is outspoken. In addition, she said, her bosses didn’t like her because she limps and worked a second job as a store clerk.
Steele said she eventually will return to California, where she first taught. For now, she’ll wait for her hearing.
“Why go back now, when they make it so good?” she asked.
Signs of hope
The tradition of ignoring bad teaching is starting to crumble.
Last year, Spokane School District 81 began training principals to evaluate teachers more carefully and encouraged them to document poor performance on evaluations.
The teachers’ union in Spokane is cooperating, even agreeing evaluations should be tied to student performance.
Meanwhile, school personnel directors want Washington legislators to revise the law. They want to move probations to earlier in the school year and give districts power to transfer bad teachers to non-teaching jobs immediately when probation fails.
That approach would get bad teachers out of the classroom, but comply with a requirement to pay them until their contracts expire.
Attorney Paul Clay of Winston, Stevens and Clay, a Spokane law firm representing 80 Eastern Washington school districts, would go further. He’d make school boards the first avenue of appeal instead of hearing officers. In Idaho, school boards hear the first appeals.
The change would cut costs and give boards an official role in dealing with unsatisfactory teachers.
Districts now pay for hearings. A typical weeklong hearing costs $10,000 for the hearing officer’s fee (about $125-$150 an hour), facilities rental, a court reporter and a transcript, Clay estimated.
In addition, the district must pay the union’s attorney - an additional $10,000 to $15,000 - if the district loses the case, but not vice versa.
“The cost for this cumbersome process is taken from the money available for the education of students,” Clay said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos Staff illustration by Charles Waltmire Graphic: The long path to firing a teacher
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Carla K. Johnson and Marny Lombard Staff writers Staff writer Julie Titone contributed to this report.