Column: Another costly tale of teacher tenure

05/25/2012 7:00 AM |

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Joe Johnson (top) leaves court last Friday with his lawyer John Ciarelli.

“Mr. Johnson has been administratively reassigned to his home, effective immediately.”

That was part of the statement released last month by Riverhead school superintendent Nancy Carney after the arrest of elementary school teacher Joe Johnson on driving while intoxicated and gun charges in Southampton Village.

So while you’re getting up in the morning and sitting in traffic just to spend the rest of your day busting your hump to earn a paycheck, the 38-year-old Mr. Johnson won’t have to lift a finger to receive his pay.

Unfortunately, statements like Ms. Carney’s are almost always the response administrators give when questioned about disciplinary measures leveled against tenured teachers who are accused of running afoul of the law.

But it’s a frustrating response for district taxpayers, who could get stuck paying Mr. Johnson’s $89,000 salary for several years as his case works its way through the justice system.

And make no mistake about it, that salary could very well go up, even if Mr. Johnson never sets foot in a classroom again.

I first visited the issue of teacher tenure in 2008, while working as editor of the North Shore Sun in Brookhaven Town.

One day while putting the paper out, I received an email from an anonymous source in the Longwood School District, asking why we had never told the story of Linda Cardone.

What followed was a year-long investigation by the paper into the tenured teacher’s career and criminal history, an investigation that uncovered several disturbing facts.

A Longwood English teacher with a history of DWI arrests, Ms. Cardone received more than $23,000 in pay increases over a four-year stretch, despite not having set foot in a classroom during that time.

Ms. Cardone even received a $15,000 raise in 2006, despite having spent 130 days in jail that year following her second DWI conviction. By the time the Sun ran its story, Ms. Cardone was in court for her third DWI arrest, her fifth arrest after a pair of arrests related to a violation of an order of protection.

Still, the district didn’t take action to terminate Ms. Cardone’s employment until after the piece ran in The Sun with the headline “Six-figure nightmare.” As a result, she was paid more than $219,000 in her final two years of employment with the district, despite not working a day while she was on so-called paid reassignment.

When asked why she was still employed, Longwood superintendent Allan Gerstenlauer said the district was waiting for the outcome of her criminal proceeding before deciding whether to pursue disciplinary action.

Sound familiar?

Dr. Gerstenlauer went on to cite tenure rules that make dismissing a tenured teacher a very time-consuming and costly process.

If a school district decides to terminate the employment of a tenured teacher, the educator has the legal right under section 3020a of New York State Education Law to an impartial hearing before any disciplinary action is taken.

Under state law, a school district has the right to bring charges against a tenured teacher who has acted in a manner the district determines to be inappropriate. However, 3020a hearings are held only rarely and can cost school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Dr. Gerstenlauer, who taught in the Longwood district before working as an administrator, spoke candidly with me in 2008 on the issue of teacher tenure.

“Tenure is important,” he said. “It protects employees from unjust dismissal. But I wonder if [the tenure laws] are so inflexible they’ve tied an employer’s hands in terms of trying to respond to behaviors that are inappropriate, bordering on egregious.”

In addition to paying the employee’s salary during the hearing, a district must also retain outside counsel, for which they pay about $200 per hour. Additionally, the district must pay a hearing officer — a mediator agreed upon by both the district and the accused teacher. Districts can pay as much as $800 per day for a hearing officer.

The officer makes a final ruling on the case. Even if a school district wants to fire an employee, it is the hearing officer who has the final say.

Dr. Gerstenlauer told us in 2008 that he would support a change in how 3020a hearings are handled.

“If we could set up timelines to a four-, five-, six-month time period, that would be a help,” he said in reference to the normal length of a 3020a hearing. “If there could be a fast track for behaviors that were really, really egregious, such as charges of sexual abuse, that could help, too. I wish we could fast track that.”

I wonder today if Riverhead administrators have a reason for fast-tracking a hearing on Mr. Johnson’s conduct, due to recent courtroom revelations in his case.

It turns out this isn’t Mr. Johnson’s first brush with the law. Not his second either.

One of two felony weapons charges filed last month against Mr. Johnson, who was allegedly found in possession of a loaded .45-caliber handgun during a traffic stop, came only due to a previous criminal conviction. In 1996, Mr. Johnson had pleaded guilty to a criminal trespassing charge that had been pleaded down from charges of having a concealed weapon and criminal possession of stolen property, according to prosecutors in his current case, who said the original charges stemmed from Mr. Johnson’s having been found in possession of a handgun that had been reported stolen.

Despite his criminal record, Mr. Johnson was hired by Riverhead in 2000.

In a statement sent to the News-Review earlier this month, Ms. Carney said that while she couldn’t “speak to the specifics of Mr. Johnson’s situation or any other specific employee,” the district didn’t begin the current background-check process of fingerprinting prospective employees until 2001.

Her statement continues, “Our application does include questions on whether a candidate has been convicted of a misdemeanor or felony.”

I wonder now, in light of revelations regarding Mr. Johnson’s past, if district administrators have gone back to check Mr. Johnson’s employment application.

If they have, and it turns out he did not disclose his previous conviction, it seems perfectly fair for the district to begin the 3020a process now, before Mr. Johnson becomes Ms. Cardone: a six-figure nightmare for the district and a drain on the taxpayer.

Grant Parpan is the web editor for Times/Review Newsgoup. He can be reached at gparpan@timesreview.com. Follow him @gparpan on Twitter.