Woodside School fails in bid to dismiss tenured teacher


It's not easy to fire a teacher in California, especially one with tenure. Woodside Elementary School, a kindergarten to eighth-grade school with 434 students in a very well-funded one-school district, recently found that out the hard way.

After spending 10 months and more than $81,000 trying to follow the state's process for dismissing a tenured teacher, spelled-out in 10,353 words of the education code, the Woodside Elementary School District in mid-November was notified that a three-member hearing panel had voted unanimously to dismiss all charges against the teacher. The district now must either put the teacher back to work, appeal the decision in San Mateo County Superior Court, or pay the teacher to resign.

With that panel's decision, the district's bill has gone up and could end up being well over $350,000.

The convoluted process the district had to follow applies to all tenured teachers in the state, and in California, teachers must either be given tenure by the end of their second year in a school or be asked to leave.

What led the district to this?

The charges

The charges the district brought against the teacher, who was in his sixth year of instructing fifth- to eighth-grade physical education at the school, sound serious: immoral and unprofessional conduct and "persistent violation of or refusal to obey" school rules or state laws. (Because all charges were dismissed, the Almanac is not naming the teacher.)

The specific incidents cited in support of the charges sound much less serious: failing to follow school procedures for dealing with doctors' notes, leaving students unsupervised for short periods, favoring athletic students over non-athletic students, using profanity in conversations with students, leaving his walkie-talkie radio on a table instead of keeping it with him, and carrying his cellphone during class.

The teacher admitted to some of the incidents, including leaving his students unsupervised at times and the walkie-talkie incident. He denied others. He said he had never used profanity with students and did not show favoritism, and that he had never carried his cellphone after being told not to. He also argued that the misdeeds that had occurred had not endangered students.

"I'm sure there are teachers out there that deserve to be dismissed and that are nasty and bad," the teacher said in an interview. "I don't put myself in that category whatsoever. I'm not perfect, I don't think any teacher is. I have a passion for teaching. I love the kids. I love the community. I love the school. And I think I got definitely smeared and blindsided."

The district argued that a student could be injured or have a medical emergency while left unsupervised by the teacher.

"Everything we did and everything the district did is focusing on putting the safety of the students first and protecting the students," said school board member Kevin Johnson, a practicing attorney who worked closely with district Superintendent Beth Polito on the case. "We felt like it was important to act and we acted," he said.

To begin the dismissal process, the five-member school board had to approve the request by Superintendent Polito. Once the teacher appealed, the board had to vote again whether to go ahead with a hearing, to be conducted in public before the Commission on Professional Competence, or dismiss the charges. The board will also have to decide what to do next.

Parents at the school said they've heard from their kids for years about the teacher doing some of the things in the charges: leaving students alone in the gym or on the field, making personal calls on his cellphone and favoring natural athletes.

Four parents testified at the hearing, held in September, along with school administrators and the teacher himself. The teacher's attorney did not call any witnesses. One mother said the teacher had ignored a doctor's note and more than once let her daughter participate in P.E. One parent said her son had told her the teacher repeatedly used profanity and put down other students in conversations; another said the teacher had made her son a promise that he did not keep and had told her daughter she'd never be as good a runner as a girl with another body type.

A custodian told about a time when he had mistakenly thrown away a piece of P.E. equipment and noticed the teacher had left his class alone to retrieve the item from a dumpster. The superintendent said she had twice observed P.E. classes from an adjacent classroom and not seen the teacher with his students.

But all the witnesses said they had never personally heard the teacher use profanity and had never seen him put down or treat students unfairly. The teacher said he had been out of the superintendent's sight when she saw his class. Woodside middle school Principal Steve Frank testified he had informally observed the teacher and his class as many as 800 times without witnessing anything inappropriate.

"It is one of the inherent problems with the system that students are the ones who observe, but it's very difficult" to let students testify, Superintendent Polito said.

However, Administrative Law Judge Jill Schlichtmann, who chaired the hearing panel, said it is common to have students testify and that accommodations could be made to make students "comfortable." She warned the district at the beginning of the hearing that hearsay testimony might be excluded from consideration.

"I don't consider statements of students to their parents, middle school students to their parents, to be so reliable that they're not just hearsay," she said. "To the extent that we don't have direct evidence, that's (the district's) problem."

The panel's decision

The panel ruled that the charges were either not proven or did not rise to the level of a firing offense. The decision said that nothing in the charges qualified as immorality, and it dismissed the charges of favoritism and profanity without discussion because the only testimony about them was hearsay -- parents quoting their children.

The decision also criticizes the school for not having breaks between classes, forcing teachers to leave students alone while taking bathroom breaks, returning messages or reading their school email. "The District's failure to provide a passing period for students places an unreasonable burden on teachers, especially the P.E. teachers," the decision says.

Cost to the district

The decision by the hearing panel means the $81,000 the district has already spent is just the beginning. Because the district lost, it is also responsible for the teacher's legal bills and all the costs of the five-day hearing, as well as more bills from its own outside attorney. Superintendent Polito said legal and hearing costs will probably add up to around $180,000.

The district said it has been paying the teacher's full salary of close to $98,000 a year, plus benefits, since they hired a replacement for him in April.

The district will either have to pay the teacher to agree to resign or pay the costs of an appeal if it decides it doesn't want him back. The total could easily surpass $350,000, not including the cost of district staff time that has gone into the case.

Rarely used process

The five-day hearing was conducted on the Woodside campus by the three-person commission headed by an administrative law judge, plus two teachers, one chosen by the district and one by the teacher.

Unlike almost any other personnel matter, the hearing was open to the public. The teacher's parents and his fiancee attended every day, as did parents and school board members and a reporter.

The hearing, all sides would probably agree, was painful. One parent had to repeatedly utter the profanities her son said the teacher had used with him. Potential witnesses spent hours being deposed by the attorneys before the hearing.

The hearing process is so painful, in fact, that most attempts to fire a teacher end in a negotiated settlement that avoids a hearing. The state Office of Administrative Hearings, which oversees the Commission on Professional Competence hearings, says that between 2010 and 2014, an average of fewer than 24 hearings a year were completed. (Other hearings started and were settled before completion.) In 2014, there were 22 completed hearings, in a year that the state had 295,025 public school teachers in 1,022 school districts, according to the California Department of Education.

Woodside Superintendent Polito said the process is so rare "it's almost like a phantom. Most people don't have any direct experience with it." The expense of the process also discourages its use, she said. "Most school districts don't have the wherewithal to address problems" with teachers by going through the hearing process, she said, including adequate time, money, or support by school boards or administration.

Because the process is so rare, she said, much of what teachers and administrators believe they know about it is "misinformation," she said.

The Office of Administrative Hearings does not keep statistics about the outcomes of the hearings, but Superintendent Polito said she had never heard of a San Mateo County district winning a case.

A dream job

The 39-year-old teacher said the public process was additionally painful for him because he grew up in Woodside, which has a population of about 5,500.

He attended Woodside Elementary School, where his mother was a teacher and his father was once a school board member. He plays softball in the town's summer recreation league and lives about 15 minutes from the school.

The teacher said that when he was hired by the Woodside district in 2009, after five years of teaching P.E. at another school, he fulfilled a lifelong ambition. "It was a dream job. I worked with great people. The kids are amazing," he said.

He chose to appeal, he said, rather than leave quietly, because he was afraid his resignation would mean he could never teach again. He also felt he was being treated unfairly, he said.

"I felt I needed to stand up for myself, and the school and the teachers," he said.

The teacher said he participated in three mandated settlement conferences, but refused to budge.

"I'm not giving up my career," he said. "I said I'm going to fight this. I think I'm in the right. I felt that I did the right thing and I still do."

New law mandates reports

The district, however, had no choice about reporting its charges to the state's teacher credentialing organization even if the charges were dropped and the teacher resigned. A state law that went into effect in January says that action taken after an official accusation of misconduct must be reported to the organization. There is an exception: When the charges are dismissed, as they were in this case, the district can come to an agreement with the teacher without reporting him.

Superintendent Polito said she also thinks the district did the right thing, even though she called the hearing "a very inhumane process." She and the school board "did our due diligence" in deciding to fire the teacher she said. "I don't think it was a knee-jerk response."

"We always make decisions based on what is best for students and this process was no different," she said.

Even before the hearing board's decision was released, some parents expressed dismay with the process.

"When the district receives multiple complaints regarding a teacher, warns the teacher and then ultimately fires the teacher, isn't the district simply doing its duty to protect children and provide 'excellent' teachers?" a parent who asked not to be identified emailed. "The amount of time and taxpayer money that is being wasted on this trial is an outrage and does nothing to bolster parents' beliefs in public schools," she said. "By demonstrating the dysfunction that exists in public school employment laws, (this) is driving families toward private schools. What a shame for Woodside."

Woodside Elementary is a district with resources.

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22 people like this
Posted by woodside parent
a resident of Woodside: other
on Dec 1, 2015 at 4:57 pm

No matter what kids lose. I personally observed this teacher with chewing tobacco in his mouth during school hours. My children told me every one of these stories in their own eyes. From my observations, he didn't put his heart into his job. He wasn't passionate as he portrayed himself to be. He had a negative attitude. Every parent I know was thrilled to see him go.

3 people like this
Posted by Chavellia
a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Dec 1, 2015 at 6:25 pm

This is so scary to me, to be forced to deal with someone who isn't wanted with our children. Could we have sat in on classes to observe, or is that not allowed? Parents unite, this should never happen today!

47 people like this
Posted by Concerned Community Member
a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Dec 1, 2015 at 9:48 pm

Concerned Community Member is a registered user.

As I read this article a few things stuck out to me that concern me. The school says they acted on behalf of student safety. I agree that schools should always do what is in best interest for students and safety. However, the article mentions, “The superintendent said she had twice observed P.E. classes from an adjacent classroom and not seen the teacher with his students." My question for the Superintendent is if you were so concerned about student safety and you think a teacher is not with his class, why did you not go out and look for him immediately or at least call another person to look for him. So if you suspect students are unsupervised, wouldn't you respond by getting someone to supervise them immediately? Makes me suspicious about those allegations or if they are true then it makes me feel that Dr Pullido is not safe for kids because she does not respond appropriately to situations she claims are unsafe

Another thing that jumps out is the article states there are no passing periods. I have worked at many schools and never have I seen a school with no passing periods in between classes. How does Woodside Elementary get away with counting the time kids walk between classes as educational minutes? No break in between classes is not fair for both teachers and students. Students deserve a full day of teaching (that is what I want for my own child) and thus, it is not fair to students to count walking to classes as educational minutes. Also, teachers need time to go to the bathroom (a legal right at any job) and set up for their next class. I can see the panel's point in this is hard for a PE teacher, especially since I assume they have to get out equipment for each class as they would be doing different lessons if they teach multiple grades.

The article also highlights the cost of this process but it was the District's choice to go through this court process, which seems like a waste of both taxpayer's money and donations to the Foundation. Personally, if that is how they are spending my money, I would not donate anymore. The article mentions they could pay him out. My question here is why did they not do that in the first place in order to avoid high lawyer costs. They could have probably spent less on just paying him out originally.

54 people like this
Posted by Danish
a resident of Woodside: Woodside Hills
on Dec 1, 2015 at 11:54 pm

Danish is a registered user.

So this article seems pretty fair and balanced until you get to the end and read the essential editorial comment from the reporter through an anonymous emailer. My kids graduated just recently from Woodside Elm and they had this teachers PE class. He was all of these things written about; he would talk on his phone, he would get sidetracked from his essential goal of babysitting my kid during recess. I heard the other rumors and hearsay. But he was also a good person to my kids and treated them with respect. I liked him as a teacher and I know many people in this community that felt the same way I did.

The first two commenters to this article should be ashamed of themselves. This was not a villain in this community, this was a person who obviously pissed off the wrong segment of this community and I am sure you two were part of the biggest complainers of the bunch. You have to toe the line at a rich "private" school like Woodside is and apparently he wasn't able to do that, but you don't need to be going on comments sections and ripping the guy anonymously. Woodside has become the glowing symbol of rich over indulged, over academicly educated entitlement that is everything wrong with this country, which is why I moved out. When I went to school, the PE teacher had a whistle and set up cones and we ran around. That was it and that was all we needed. This relentless search for having the best for our beloved babies through any financial means necessary is gross and it fosters a hostile environment for the parents, teachers and kids. We need to go back to the days when we didn't elevate positions to above what they are. He was a your yard duty guy and ball collector, he wasn't your home room teacher. He wasn't going to get your kid into Harvard.

it is all fun and games in the ivory tower to slam down the guillotine and cast away the unwanted servants of your community but the guy, based upon the limited charges levied against him should have a right to go find employment somewhere else in a community that may welcome him. This ONE school district with 2 principal's and one superintendent and how ever many board members felt the need to take that away because of the few and powerful parents that can't get enough education injected into their kids? Come on people settle down.

30 people like this
Posted by Nanc
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Dec 2, 2015 at 1:09 pm

Nanc is a registered user.

(Part removed) at P.V.'s Corte Madera school had to deal with some horrible parents and admin who also tried to oust him. Glad to hear that this teacher at Woodside was vindicated too. How about these pushy parents back off and allow educators to do their jobs in peace and show them a a TON of gratitude for the great work they do.

19 people like this
Posted by John McGraw
a resident of Portola Valley: Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde
on Dec 2, 2015 at 2:01 pm

John McGraw is a registered user.

This shines a light on the PROBLEM with public education. Teachers should be like all the other employees and their jobs should be at will. If a school chooses to fire them there should be no need for all this expense and drama. Until the unions are eliminated from public education our schools are doomed for failure.

23 people like this
Posted by Nanc
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Dec 2, 2015 at 6:15 pm

Nanc is a registered user.

actually this case shines a light on exactly why educators and teachers unions need to be protected. Unsubstantiated claims should never be used to oust teachers - else every time some helicopter parent has a tantrum a solid and respected teacher would be fired. The process worked and the teacher was vindicated. sadly it appears that this Superintendent has zero backbone and failed to stand behind the teacher in this case. Not sure why the teacher's name from Corte Madera was edited from my earlier post as the Almanac covered that story and printed his name in their paper. McGraw, if you don't like teacher's unions then send your kid to private school where teachers aren't afforded the union protection and perhaps parents can influence who gets fired over trivial matters.

6 people like this
Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on Dec 2, 2015 at 7:05 pm

pogo is a registered user.

Last year, there were a stunning 22 termination hearings out of 300,000 teachers.

That's 7/1000th of one percent.

Yes, it sounds like those teachers don't have sufficient protection from being fired.

12 people like this
Posted by thoughtful in Woodside
a resident of Woodside: other
on Dec 2, 2015 at 7:14 pm

thoughtful in Woodside is a registered user.

With all due respect, Nanc, these claims against Mr. PE teacher were not unsubstantiated. The choice to keep the children from testifying the truth about what was happening (and not happening) in his classroom was a choice that was made IN THE BEST INTEREST OF THE CHILDREN. Accepting mediocrity, laziness, favoritism and neglect is rolling over and playing dead when it comes to educating our children. In any private sector job, Mr. PE teacher's job performance would have gotten him fired long ago. Protecting a sub-standard teacher is not a victory for anyone - not the children, not the public school system, and not the tax payer.

I am a parent who never went to the administration to report the stories from my children and their friends, because I assumed nothing could be done as I believed that a tenured (after just two years of teaching) teacher is almost impossible to fire. I know many parents who were under the same assumption so never stepped forward. Turns out we were right.

You are trying to paint a picture where entitled parents tried to get a hard working teacher fired. You are wrong. The only person who is behaving in an entitled manner is the teacher. A teaching job should not be an entitlement. Tenure should be earned, not given away.

40 people like this
Posted by Concerned Community Member
a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Dec 2, 2015 at 8:22 pm

Concerned Community Member is a registered user.

This article does not include all the facts of the case clearly showing why the charges were dropped. For example, one may not understand all the facts outlining this situation with a student and her medical note. Here are direct quotes from the judge’s decision (which is public records so anyone can read it for themselves) First of all the teacher did NOT have the student participate in PE. He allowed her to walk with her friends who were also not participating in the regular PE activity. He apologized to the mom in an email below (again direct quote from the judge’s decision write up):
“In his email message, respondent sought to deescalate the dispute with a conciliatory tone and therefore did not disagree with the facts as stated in the message sent by XX's mother. He wrote:
‘I want to first apologize for the misunderstanding with (XX) and her PE. By no means do I want her to re-injure herself or be active during PE. When XX came back to PE I thought she wanted to be around her friends and classmates. I never let (XX) participate in ANY activities during class. Yesterday, I put her In a group to WATCH (not participate) and be with her friends. She did not play football. In fact, she lied down during class while watching her group learn patterns and routes. When the kids take a warm up jog she chose to walk around the turf while the other students jog. My understanding was (XX) chose to modify anything she could. I try my best to have (XX) choose what she wants to do. I even ask her if she wants to go to the library or work on homework. Going forward I clearly understand she should go to (the) library or office. I will talk to (XX) today and make sure she understands that she does not have to come to PE. She can go directly to the library. In the past she started to go to the library and work on community service just recently she started staying in PE and modify what she wanted. I'm sorry for misunderstanding in the past.’ “

Next, this mom emailed the teacher back stating (again direct quote from evidence submitted to the judge and panel):

“XX's mother replied by email message on November 2, 2014 copying Frank stating...’Thanks for your reply and apology. We appreciate your help in this matter. It sounds like we are on the same page. See you Tuesday morning. Thanks. ‘. Respondent understood this to mean that his apology had been accepted and they would move forward with a 504 plan.

Respondent and the team developed a 504 plan for XX in November 2014.
XX did not attend P.E. For the remainder of the school year. XX continued to train in ballet four to five days per week and competed in a ballet competition in January 2015.”

So if you are interested in the facts that clearly show this teacher is not a villain then read the judge’s decision as this article does not include important details. Also, if this family is so concerned about this PE teacher re-injuring their daughter’s foot, why would they allow her to do ballet during this exact same time period she was not allowed to do PE. So they are so angry with this teacher for allowing her to walk one day, yet they allowed her to do ballet including a competition (these are the facts of the case with evidence the judge wrote up).

Look people, there are rules and just because you are entitled and rich does not mean you can’t follow rules. This teacher did not do anything that is firable proven by the fact a neutral judge and panel unanimously voted to drop all charges.

5 people like this
Posted by MP2747
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Dec 2, 2015 at 9:27 pm

MP2747 is a registered user.

After reading many of the comments I am thinking many of the commentators do not understand that tenure is granted by the school administration (principal) and district personnel after evaluations and observations. As a retired school administrator I can say that I am unaware of a district that would grant tenure after 2 years, in our district it was a minimum of 4-5 years before a teacher was fully tenured. A beginning teacher steps are to be Temporary, generally 2 years, Probational, 1-3 years and finally Tenure is granted only after completing many, many hours of professional development, and constant observation from both peers and administrators. After moving here 5 years ago I have read many articles about the disfunction at this small school district and perhaps all of those who did sign off on this teacher's tenure need to review their procedures and policies. Tenure is NOT and should not be automatic but all teachers and the public deserve a transparent process.

31 people like this
Posted by myopinion
a resident of Woodside: other
on Dec 2, 2015 at 11:22 pm

myopinion is a registered user.

Whether in private sector or a school district, employees have rights and are allowed due process! Managers should address complaints directly, and in a timely fashion, with the employee so they can make attempts to correct or fix the can't fix something they aren't aware of. And just because you don't "like" someone, doesn't mean they deserve to be fired! You have to have grounds for termination and clearly an impartial panel didn't believe there were grounds.

It seems the offenses of this teacher, which his termination were based on, are negligible at best. Not following process for notes, not wearing a walkie talkie, carrying the cellphone. This would be like someone trying to get you fired for not picking up your papers off the printer or typing too loud on your keyboard!

The administrative judge, who has likely resided over many of these cases, and the other panel members (OF HIS PEERS) must have listened to these charges as well as the parent who complained that this teacher "made her son a promise he didn't keep" (COME ON!!) in disbelief they had to waste their time and our tax dollars to entertain these charges. As a member of this community, unfortunately I don't find it as hard to believe anymore.

It seems we have a superintendent who failed both the parents, by doing nothing with their complaints (if they complained), and the teacher by not providing specific feedback regarding performance and managing based on improving performance. I'm dumbfounded how it's possible to drop the ball on a people management issue with all of the help she has at our 400 student school (two principals, a business official, a student services director, a director for preschool). If there was a good leader there, and if this teacher really wasn't a fit at WES, it seems this could have been handled with some tact and dignity providing a resolution that could suit everyone.

2 people like this
Posted by Barbara Wood
Almanac staff writer
on Dec 3, 2015 at 11:36 am

Barbara Wood is a registered user.

I have added a link Web Link (PDF) to the decision of the hearing panel to this story.

Also, a clarification regarding tenure in California. I suspect MP2747 may have moved here from another state. In California, tenure must be granted by the end of the second year of teaching or the teacher must be released. A lawsuit trying to change this system, and the teacher dismissal process is now in appeal. This article has more information. Web Link

7 people like this
Posted by Fellow neighbor
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Dec 5, 2015 at 1:15 pm

Fellow neighbor is a registered user.

After reading the Panel’s decision, one can see why it was dismissed. The District made its decision it no longer wanted to employ the teacher and the first step was to file the Notice of Unprofessional Conduct. They had no intention of working with the teacher to remediate the conduct. It would have been interesting to hear the conversations and cost/benefit analysis they used to make the decision to move forward on a “rarely used process”; one in which they were warned that hearsay testimony might be excluded. What a waste of taxpayer’s money. Wonder if the student won her ballet competition!

10 people like this
Posted by Momto3
a resident of Atherton: other
on Dec 7, 2015 at 4:34 pm

Momto3 is a registered user.

Sounds to me like this overpaid superintendent doesn't like said PE teacher! First off a teacher does not have to be tenured. After 2 years most good school districts let teachers that aren't up to standards go. I highly doubt this PE teacher changed over night and 2 years is a long "trial" period. I am still in shock that this Superintendent makes the same $$$ at her one school, school district then the MPCSD which has 4 (soon to be 5) schools! Ridiculous!

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