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Tuesday, June 30, 2009 | Lynne Holyoke knew her principal wanted to fire her. The retired art teacher said the two had often sparred over her teaching style. But instead, Holyoke said the school district made her an offer: Take a year off with pay and resign at the end of it. Holyoke agreed and spent the year on paid administrative leave, doing art therapy, volunteering and mulling her future.

“It was like a package to go,” she said.

Holyoke is not the only educator who has been pulled from her classroom but paid nonetheless. Fifty-six educators have been put on paid administrative leave in San Diego Unified over the last six years, taken out of their ordinary jobs but kept on the payroll for anywhere from a few days to more than four years.

Some teachers have been accused of crimes or inappropriate behavior and are removed from their classes until the charges are proven or disproven. Some are awaiting hearings that decide whether they will be fired. A small number are suffering medical problems.

And others such as Holyoke are paid as part of a settlement to avoid the expensive process of firing them, especially when the cases against them are difficult to prove in court.

School district attorney Mark Bresee said that teachers sometimes make formal pacts — agreeing to resign in exchange for staying on paid leave for a fixed time — and sometimes simply agree informally to resign after time. The practice is used across the country but rarely quantified.

While still uncommon in the sprawling school district, the frequency of paid administrative leave has increased significantly in the past two years, along with its costs. Estimates done by voiceofsandiego.org based on data provided by the school district found that the practice cost more than $2.1 million over the past six years. Costs have risen from an eventual payout of an estimated $262,000 for three teachers put on leave in the 2003-2004 school year to more than $716,000 — and counting — for 26 educators in 2008-2009.

Staffers call the uptick a fluke and say that school district practices haven’t changed. Pulling educators from their jobs but keeping them paid has many purposes: It removes teachers, counselors and administrators who are suspected of foul play from the classroom, separates employees when harassment is alleged, and ensures that workers are not penalized for allegations that go nowhere. Human resources and legal staffers, not principals, must approve the decision for leave.

“If we have people that we fear are not good for kids, we want to make sure that they’re not working with kids,” said Tim Asfazadour, a human resources officer.

It is sometimes mandated by California law, which limits the circumstances when teachers are pulled without pay. Attorneys said it can also be cheaper than firing educators, an extensive process during which teachers are typically still on the payroll.

But the phenomenon also raises concerns, especially when it is used to avoid firing teachers. Critics complain that it is a symptom of an overly cumbersome and expensive process for terminating teachers that can take years to complete.

“This is just wrong,” said William Wright, vice chairman of San Diego Unified’s audit and finance committee, when told about the practice of buyouts. “It’s just happening because it’s so hard to fire somebody. They’re buying them off with the taxpayers’ money.”

Others worry about the costs compared to other methods of removing teachers, such as simply coaxing educators who are doing poorly to leave the profession. And teachers themselves fear being targeted and pressured to leave a school without a sound reason by being thrown into the limbo of paid leave. Few educators seem pleased to spend time outside their classrooms, even with pay.

“If a principal has an issue with a teacher, they can accomplish their goal of getting rid of them,” Holyoke said. “If they really mean to get you out, it’s just too tortuous (for teachers) to go through.”

Unlike the notorious “rubber rooms” in New York City, where hundreds of teachers under investigation sit idle, Asfazadour said that San Diego Unified educators on paid leave are usually still working, if not in their usual jobs. Some evaluate books or file supplies in a lending library for teachers, others work in the cafeteria or do data entry.

Francis Thumm, a retired music teacher, was put on leave twice, both times after a principal tried to fire him.

Years ago he was pulled from his classroom for coming late to work at Point Loma High School; the second time Thumm said administrators at Bell Middle School sought to fire him for failing to turn in his syllabus on time, leaving campus without following the proper procedures, and allegedly improperly collecting money at a fundraiser.

Thumm said he never arrived after class had actually started and felt he was targeted unfairly for speaking out at his schools. The problems were routine, he said, and didn’t merit such strict punishment.

He spent more than two years on paid leave the second time around, awaiting his hearing, before deciding to retire.

“It was a terrible misuse of a good mechanism,” Thumm said of his experience.

Calculating the Costs of Leave

Darlene Bates, who oversaw the teachers’ lending library where educators on paid leave are often placed, set ground rules for workers on leave under her watch: No badmouthing their bosses or talking about their cases. They sometimes stay a semester or more. Leaves have ranged from five days to over four years; the average is estimated at more than 200 days.

“It’s disappointing that it takes so long,” Bates said. “Part of me says, ‘It’s a good thing they’re not out and about, if they are indeed having these issues.’ But there needs to be some resolution so the individual can get on with their career path, or make amends — so that they’re no longer floating.”

Experts and attorneys say the reality is that paid leave is often the only legal or practical option when accusations erupt. School officials believe it is also the cheapest option available when districts lack an open-and-shut case for firing a teacher. District staffers and union leaders alike call it a compromise.

“It’s like everyone puts their swords down,” said Steven Johnson, executive director of the San Diego Education Association. It is more likely to happen, he said, when districts miss some of the steps in the process for evaluating a teacher, putting them “in a precarious place” for dismissing them.

Asfazadour said the recent increase consisted of cases involving accusations that needed to be investigated, not settlements. Confirming that is difficult because San Diego Unified is legally restricted in revealing details about individual workers’ cases, though some of the most lurid ones have already made headlines. Few of the teachers contacted for this story were willing to speak on the record.

Teachers are often put on paid leave when someone accuses them of a crime or inappropriate behavior. Attorney Melanie Petersen, a partner in a San Marcos firm, said only a limited list of allegations, largely sex and drug crimes, can land a teacher on unpaid leave during an investigation. That means that educators normally stay on the payroll after being accused of other crimes or misdeeds, from misusing school money to hitting a child, while the allegations are checked. Investigations are done by city or school police detectives and can be lengthy: One teacher accused of choking a student has been out on leave for more than nine months. Others end quickly.

“A child said something happened and they called in a police officer and investigated,” said Donna Chateau, a retired teacher who was put on leave for less than two weeks before returning to the classroom. She declined to describe the allegation. “I just did what I was told to do because I didn’t want to make waves.”

Even when wrongdoing is proven, school districts are rarely reimbursed for the money they pay to employees while the allegations are investigated. One example is John Kyujoon Lee, a former teacher at the School of Creative and Performing Arts who was convicted of statutory rape. He was paid his $64,000 yearly salary for more than five months while his case was tried: an estimated $26,000 according to a voiceofsandiego.org analysis.

Data were obtained by voiceofsandiego.org through a Public Records Act request for the names, titles, salaries and leave dates of educators put on paid administrative leave since 2003. That does not include employees other than teachers, counselors and administrators. Using that information, voiceofsandiego.org calculated the number of calendar days that the educators spent on leave and estimated the amount of salary they would have received during that time.

Because teachers do not work every day of the year and are paid on different schedules, their actual earnings may be somewhat higher than these estimates. Asfazadour and other school district staff could not confirm the estimated costs, but verified that the calculation would generate a reasonable estimate.

Buyouts More Likely When Cases Are Tough

Other employees are put on paid leave not because of alleged crimes, but because they are in the pipeline to be fired. That process is lengthy and can be expensive. Tenured teachers must be evaluated and given a chance to improve before their principals recommend firing them, a process that can take years before the school board votes to fire a teacher and years afterward. Attorneys estimate its costs at upwards of $100,000 for complex cases. While principals may try to informally shunt teachers away by encouraging them to seek other careers, actual firings are extraordinarily rare in San Diego Unified.

Even after the school board opts to fire a teacher, the employee can continue to be paid while contesting his or her firing at a higher commission. Petersen said it can take anywhere from three months to a year and a half between when the school board votes to fire a teacher and the commission makes its final decision. A teacher would not lose pay until that commission ruled against them.

They have another chance to win back their salaries: Teachers who appeal their firings further can get back their pay and their legal fees if they ultimately prevail, said Clifford Weiler, an attorney who represents school districts. That raises the stakes for districts weighing whether they really want to try to fire a teacher and risk big losses or cut a deal. The average educator on leave over the past six years has taken home an estimated $38,000 according to this analysis, far less than the estimated firing costs.

“If you lose, it’s very costly. You’re paying an attorney a ton of money, you’re paying their attorney a ton of money, and you’ve still got the teacher,” said John Bukey, formerly the general counsel for the California School Boards Association. “That’s not a good bargain.”

Petersen said cases where a teacher is seen doing something egregious, such as hitting a child, tend to be easier to wrap up and end without a buyout. The most expensive cases tend to be when principals argue that teachers are just not very good at their jobs. Holyoke, for example, said her teaching was criticized. Her story was echoed by several other teachers and counselors who said they were being paid to resign after clashing with principals, but declined to give their names.

Holyoke’s former principal, Susan Levy, said she couldn’t talk about what happened with the teacher because of employee confidentiality. Nor was Levy aware of what occurred after the human resources department stepped in to handle things after Holyoke had left; the teacher said she took a stress leave.

“They always say, ‘We’ll take care of it,’” Levy said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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