The president of LAUSD's board stood behind a school district decision to reach a financial settlement last year with former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, now accused of lewd acts on 23 young students.
A public records investigation by KPCC and NBC4 revealed that LAUSD had paid Berndt about $40,000 after he challenged the school board’s move to fire him. The money was for Berndt’s back wages and legal fees.
Monica Garcia, president of the school board, defended the decision, saying the reason she supported the settlement was because "it was completing the task of removing this person as an employee of LAUSD and never letting him be before our kids again."
The board was told Berndt had allowed himself to be blindfolded at school. But members didn’t have the information that led L.A. County sheriff’s deputies to arrest him seven months later.
News of the settlement angered some Miramonte Elementary parents and led Garcia to say the school district should eliminate the appeals process for fired teachers.
The district put out a statement late Friday defending their action saying it was the most immediate way to ensure he would no longer be a threat to other students in LAUSD:
When the Board of Education initiated steps to fire Berndt in February 2011, Berndt immediately fought his dismissal through an appeal hearing process with the State Office of Administrative Hearings, which every permanent certificated employee has the right to under the Education Code.
During the appeal process the responsibility lies with the District to present evidence and witnesses to justify the dismissal of a teacher, and in the case of Berndt, to demonstrate that he is unfit to be a teacher in LAUSD.
However, through no control of the District, law enforcement agencies did not allow the District access to any evidence or witnesses so as to prevent interference with the criminal investigation. Similarly, the District was prohibited by law enforcement from conducting its own investigation or gathering evidence for purposes of the dismissal hearing. Consequently, LAUSD was left with no evidence to successfully present a case to dismiss Berndt. As a District, we would not want to compromise any criminal investigation surrounding an alleged perpetrator.
Given this restraint, LAUSD also ran the risk of losing the appeal process and as a consequence, being forced to retain Berndt as an employee of LAUSD. In light of this potential risk, the LAUSD’s most prudent and viable option was to settle.
Our main priority is always the safety and well being of our students and providing them a safe learning environment.
Settling for $40,000 to pay the approximately five months of salary Berndt would have otherwise been statutorily entitled to and other related expenses was a guaranteed result given the uncertainties of the dismissal process and the inability to access evidence in this dismissal matter.
The State’s current teacher dismissal framework makes it extremely difficult to terminate unfit teachers like Berndt, thus requiring the District to find other viable options to ensure the safety of our students.