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Vergara hears moving testimony from oft-dismissed teacher

Mark Harris | February 4, 2014

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Bhavini Bhakta

Bhavini Bhakta

A stunning silence fell over the courtroom today when Bhavini Bhakta, the first teacher to testify in the Vergara v California trial, described the impact of the state’s current teacher dismissal and seniority laws.

An award-winning educator with two master’s degrees, she recounted how despite her success, the warm embrace of her students and the appreciation of their parents, she was laid off five times in nine years at three different Los Angeles area schools only because she was junior to other teachers.

“No matter how hard I worked, none of it mattered,” she said, wiping away tears. “All that mattered was my hiring date. You’re not even a person, it’s not anything you do; it’s just the hire date that matters. I was just a number, not a person, and that’s not easy.”

Bhakta’s testimony gave an emotional lift to the Vergara plaintiffs, who are trying to show that state laws on teacher seniority, dismissal and tenure protect ineffective teachers at the expense of younger ones and deny children a constitutional right to a quality education.

As defendants, the California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers and the state are claiming that the laws don’t interfere with the way district administrators deal with ineffective teachers.

The 2009 teacher of the year at Broadoaks Elementary School in Monrovia, Bhakta told the court that she switched majors in college after tutoring kids, saying she fell in love with the profession.

When questioned by plaintiff’s attorney Kyle Withers as to her time in three different public school systems, she described a series of checkerboard moves, layoffs and rehires that seemed to occur almost every year. Whether hired back or not, she testified that every time she received a pink slip, she felt as if she lost her job.

She further said the seniority statue “destroys morale” at schools and turns teachers against each other.

“It destroys the sense of community at any school,” she said. “And I’ve witnessed it.”

State Deputy Attorney Charles Antonen had the unenviable job of cross examination. He attempted to show that Bhakta only lost her job once, despite multiple notices, because she was rehired when openings came up just before school started.

But in her final minutes, back under friendly questioning from Withers, she concluded, “At the end of the day, it’s the kids who suffer. That’s who gets burned, the kids.”

William Kappenhagen, the principal at Burton Academic High School in San Francisco, followed Bhatka to the stand and described his school as primarily comprised of minority and lower income students, where teachers are paid $750 extra for each semester they teach there.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Joshua Lipshutz took over, returning to a familiar territory about the impact of effective teachers in the classroom.

Kappenhagen testified that Burton’s Academic Performance Index has steadily increased as a result of being able to hire dedicated teachers. Nonetheless, he said he still confronts the challenges of grossly ineffective teachers on his campus and retaining those teachers, who are passionate about their profession.

Earlier in the day, former superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, Jonathan Raymond wrapped up his testimony, telling the court that the challenged dismissal, tenure and seniority laws provide enormous burdens for school administrators.

Under his tenure, Raymond devised what he described as “work around” programs, ways to circumvent the rules and get ineffective teachers out of the classroom. Those programs included placing teachers in independent study programs or reassigning them as substitute teachers.

The superintendent testified these measures showed the extraordinary lengths an administrator must go to remove poor teachers. Raymond testified the programs were helpful but not permanent solutions, saying, “It’s like moving chairs on the Titanic.”

When asked by plaintiffs’ attorney Marcellus McRae whether the dismissal and seniority rules had a disproportionate impact on low income, minority students, Raymond testified that it does. He added that layoffs often impact the neediest schools as those campuses are typically staffed with the most junior teachers. What occurs, he said, is the dismissal of a group of effective teachers dedicated to helping some of our most disadvantaged children.

But Raymond’s winning points for the plaintiffs were countered under cross examination by Jonathan Weissglass, an attorney for the teachers’ unions, who returned to the defense’s major contention: the statues are not flawed and that well run school districts and administrators can work within the existing rules.

He pointed out that Raymond was successful in making improvements, asking, “Were you able to use better management to improve the schools?”

Yes,” Raymond answered.

“And within the constraints of the existing statutes?”

Again, Raymond replied, “Yes.”

Kappenhagen is expected to finish tomorrow, followed by Mark Douglas, Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Services for the Fullerton School District, and Thomas J. Kane, a Harvard University professor of education and economics.


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