Our public schools are full of good teachers. So why is it so hard to get rid of the occasional bad one?
It's nearly impossible to fire a teacher because of our state tenure law, which protects public school teachers who have been on the job in a district for more than 40 months.
The process is so costly and time-consuming, most school districts will do anything to avoid a dreaded teacher termination, including doing nothing at all.
A rarely seen public drama unfolding in Branford offers a revealing peephole into what goes on when a school district tries to unload a veteran teacher. Like most terminations, it is an ugly, unseemly exercise, but so is placing an incompetent educator in a classroom of children.
Branford is trying to dismiss teacher Denise Farina, a 27-year veteran, citing a long list of problems, from poor teaching and low test scores to showing up late for school. Farina, who has suffered various illnesses in recent years, including cancer and insomnia, says she's been targeted by biased administrators since she switched from kindergarten to fourth grade.
Usually, the rarely invoked termination proceeding is held behind closed doors. Farina, who has filed a federal lawsuit against the local board charging age and disability discrimination, requested a public hearing to take her case to the community.
Farina is currently on leave, collecting her salary of about $80,000. During a break in the hearing one day last week, she told me she only wants "the truth to come out. I've always just taught from my heart. I've never claimed to be a perfect teacher."
Local administrators, after years of trying to help Farina, say she shouldn't be in a classroom.
"There was no teaching going on," Branford Superintendent Kathleen Halligan said, testifying last Friday about a visit she made to Farina's classroom in 2008 after years of poor evaluations. "This teacher was bumbling around looking for materials."
"In fact, she was not prepared to teach the children," Halligan said when she described Farina's inability to prepare effective lesson plans. "Sometimes it was the same lesson plan for every day of the week."
Farina was evaluated and re-evaluated numerous times by different administrators. She was placed in programs to help her learn to become a better teacher, including "how to set up a safe and appropriate classroom."
Farina's legal representative, Mica Notz, a paralegal, responded to all this by asking absurd questions of Halligan, such as why Farina wasn't able to hand-pick who would evaluate her performance.
"Why was it appropriate for the school board to bring in an evaluator and not Mrs. Farina?" Notz asked Halligan.
Patrice McCarthy, chief counsel to the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, told me that school districts often will do whatever is necessary to avoid firing a teacher, "because of the length of time and the cost of going through a formal process and the disruptive effect on everyone involved."
Disruptive is right. The termination has become a public spectacle closely chronicled in the Branford Eagle, an online news website, and the New Haven Register. Halligan devotes long hours to dismissing one teacher when she's got 3,600 students and 275 other teachers to worry about. The Branford school board will no doubt spend tens, and perhaps hundreds, of thousands of dollars just to jettison a single teacher.
So it's a fair question to ask whether this is worth all this time and effort. It might not be.
Except that we have a system with seemingly endless protections for the teacher who is failing. Where are the same protections for the student — or the taxpaying parent footing the bill?
"Do the parents of Branford have a right to expect a better teacher?" board lawyer Michael Rose asked at one point on Friday.
They certainly do. Give Branford administrators credit for taking a stand.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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