In November 2015, when an administrative panel dismissed all the charges against a teacher the Woodside Elementary School District had tried to fire, not only did the teacher remain on the district's payroll, but district officials were left on the hook for all the costs of holding the administrative hearing and both the district's and teacher's legal costs.
What happened next, and the $584,000 it cost taxpayers, has just been revealed by the district after the Almanac made a California Public Records Act request for the information.
The Almanac has been asking for the information for more than a year, but requested the information again at least four times between March 1 and March 7, in the hopes of providing it to the public before a vote on a parcel tax on April 4. The Almanac made a formal Public Records Act request on March 9, but the information was not provided until April 18, two weeks after the election.
The parcel tax, which brings in about $300,000 a year to the district, was approved by 73 percent of those voting, well over the two-thirds required. The cost of firing the teacher was just short of two years of parcel tax revenues.
The teacher continued earning full pay and benefits while on administrative leave until June 30, 2016, apparently even getting a pay raise during that time. The district then made a $200,000 severance payment to the teacher.
The teacher, who is not being named by the Almanac because all the charges against him were dismissed, was in his sixth year of instructing fifth- to eighth-grade physical education at the school when he was notified the school district had begun the dismissal process. He was put on administrative leave and a replacement teacher hired in April 2015.
The dismissal, which had been approved by Superintendent Beth Polito and the school board, was appealed by the teacher. He said he was afraid that because of the charges the district had levied against him, he would never be able to teach again.
The administrative panel, made up of a member chosen by the district, a member chosen by the teacher and an administrative law judge, unanimously dismissed all the charges after a five-day public hearing in September 2015.
The school board had approved continuing with the action against the teacher after his appeal of his dismissal. The board also approved the severance payment.
The $584,127 in total costs are made up of:
•Pay for the 2015-16 school year: $101,759.
•Benefits for 2015-16 school year: $26,358.
•Pay for March-June 2015: $39,000.
•Benefits for March-June 2015: $6,957.
•Severance pay: $200,000.
•District's attorney: $92,236.
•Teacher's attorney: $90,000.
•Administrative hearing: $25,567.
•Expenses of panel members: $2,250.
After the Almanac learned how much money had been spent dismissing the teacher, Superintendent Polito and school board President Claire Pollioni were asked to answer the following questions: "Whether it was worth this much money to the district to dismiss a teacher? If it was worth it, why? Do you think, in hindsight, that things could have been done differently? If so, how?"
President Pollioni did not respond to the questions, but Superintendent Polito sent the following response.
"This is a joint board/district statement. No individual board members will be making a statement.
"The District does not intend to comment at length about this matter, given privacy concerns, but in light of the local interest in this topic, we feel the public should be aware that the district and Board have to make tough calls sometimes in matters of staffing and the system in state law for dismissing teachers is challenging for both school districts and staff. The District and Board have accepted the outcome of the process in this case and we're focused on the future and continuing to offer an excellent educational experience to all our students."
The charges brought by the school included immoral and unprofessional conduct and "persistent violation of or refusal to obey" school rules or state laws. The specific incidents cited in support of the charges included: 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.
The panel ruled that the charges were either not proven or did not rise to the level of a firing offense. The decision noted 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 criticized the school for not having breaks between classes and 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.
See the Almanac's original story, including a link to the hearing board's decision.
Note: The pay for the four-month period, March 2015-June 30, 2015, of $39,000 was calculated using the $98,000 annual pay amount provided by the district for this teacher for 2014-15, divided by 10 monthly pay periods, and multiplied by four. The benefits cost of $6,957 for the 4-month period was calculated using Transparent California website's benefit amount for this teacher in 2015 of $20,871. All other figures were provided by the school district. The district says the 2015 costs should not be included in the calculations because the teacher was on medical leave for part of that time. The district announced he was on leave on March 9 and that he would not be returning on April 22.