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Vergara case inside court, dueling press conferences outside

Vanessa Romo | March 27, 2014

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Elizabeth Vergara, at the press conference

Elizabeth Vergara, at the press conference

As lawyers in the Vergara v. California case made their closing arguments inside the court room for the benefit of an audience of one – Judge Rolf Treu – their dueling press conferences held outside were directed at a statewide audience, to be broadcast by a number of television cameras.

The state defense team got their side of the story out first at an early morning event with the message that state laws that offer employment protections for public school teachers help California public schools “keep the American dream alive.”

Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, did not mince words.

“Outstanding teachers, award winning school administrators and the best education policy experts in the country have made it absolutely clear that the plaintiffs in this case are absolutely wrong,” he said.

Kindergarten teacher Erica Jones agreed, despite having been a victim of one of the statute’s that the plaintiffs are hoping Treu strikes down. The Last In, First Out law, or LIFO, ensures teachers with seniority are spared from the lay-off guillotine in times of district-wide reductions.

Jones said she was laid off in March 2009 as a new teacher. “I did not get this pink slip because of ineffective teachers or effective teachers,” she said. “I got this pink slip because my school and the district was incredibly under-funded.”

With no hard feelings, Jones added, “Seniority was merely an organized way to distribute the pink slips.”

Jeff Seymour, a former El Monte Superintendent who had testified for the defense, said existing laws provide stability in schools and lead to a collegial atmosphere, one in which teachers are willing to collaborate

“If we took away these vital supports, I believe that would tear that team approach apart and we would revert to almost a ‘Hunger Games’ mentality,” he said.

The plaintiffs’ press conference, held midday, before the defense presented its closing, was better attended with people from the courtroom who were there intentionally and some who “just followed the crowd,” as one person said.

They also had twice as many speakers, including one of the girls whose name — Vergara — has become short-hand for the case.

Sixteen year-old Elizabeth Vergara, self-consciously addressed the crowd — though at not quite five feet, she was hard to see over the podium.

“I never thought I’d be talking to this many reporters,” she said nervously.

Vergara says she became involved in the lawsuit because she wants to have “good teachers who inspire us.”

“But right now we’re kids and we can’t do this alone,” she said.

She went on: “It was scary telling my story to a judge but I’m glad I did. And I’m glad about my sister Beatriz and the other plaintiff’s [were able to] tell their stories, too.

Being a part of this case has given me an opportunity to stand up for my education.”

Marcellus McRae, who had just ended a one-hour, fairly note-free presentation in front of Judge Treu, took the opportunity to repeat a refrain he said inside the courtroom: “You can’t make sense out of nonsense.”

The money man behind the student plaintiffs in the lawsuit, David Welch, founder of Students Matter, a nonprofit organization, spoke briefly saying, the nine-students who have become the face of the landmark suit are surrogates for all of the children in California, everyone of whom deserves access to high quality teaching.

Russlynn Ali, a Students Matter board member and former Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, said the case could have national implications.

“It’s important not just for California,” she said. “The ramifications will ripple far outside of our border. This has started a robust and needed conversation.”

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