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But those developments meant nothing to the appellate court. It ruled against the district and once again dismissed Truitt's termination hearing. The court held that tenure rules clearly state that "no decision relating to the dismissal ... of any employee shall be made on charges or evidence of any nature relating to the matters occurring more than four years prior to the filing of the notice."
Although Atwater officials appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, they feared they would never be allowed to fire Truitt -- who by then had been put on leave pending a resolution of the case. One option was to wait for him to be convicted of molestation, which would result in the loss of his teaching credential. But that was no slam-dunk. Child-molestation cases can be tough to win, especially if they're based on old allegations without physical evidence. In this case, it would be the word of young boys who had waited four to ten years to come forward against that of a well-liked teacher who was backed by one of the most powerful unions in California.
With the prospect of children having to testify in open court, school officials signed off on a plea-bargain agreement between the district attorney and Truitt's attorneys. The teacher pleaded no contest, was convicted of a misdemeanor battery charge, and agreed to five years' probation. In exchange, he resigned from the district and voluntarily surrendered his teaching credential. "This broke my heart," he wrote in July 2004 to the court.
The plea deal kept Truitt out of the classroom and away from children every day. But if he was guilty, justice had not been served. A child molester may have gone free because tenure rules made it virtually impossible for his employer to keep him away from potential victims.
After suffering a stroke, Truitt died in May of this year at the age of 54. The school district is pressing its case nonetheless, supported by the California School Boards Association and several other major school districts. Atwater is arguing that even though Truitt is dead, key questions remain unresolved. "The essence of this case is to protect the safety of schoolchildren," said attorney Smith, who represents the district. "When you don't know about the misconduct, then why should you be prevented from acting on the misconduct when it comes to your attention?"
Atwater is asking the high court to liberally interpret the tenure rules to mean that the four-year clock should not begin ticking until the district learns of the allegations. "It contravenes public policy that the employment rights of one individual would be elevated above the rights of schoolchildren," attorneys for LA Unified said in a letter to the court in support of Atwater.
Union attorney John Kohn maintains to this day that Truitt was innocent. Attorney Thomas Driscoll, who represented Truitt since the original tenure hearing and is still being paid by the teachers' union, said the district attorney's office must have settled the case because there were "problems with it." Mendocino County District Attorney Gordon Spencer did not return two phone calls seeking comment on why he accepted the plea bargain.
As for the Supreme Court case, Kohn and Driscoll argue that it should be the job of police and prosecutors -- not school districts -- to investigate criminal allegations against teachers and prosecute them if necessary. "I'm glad that the California Supreme Court took this case, because we want to defend this case," Driscoll said.
But there is more at stake in Truitt than the rights of teachers versus the safety of schoolchildren. Cash-strapped school districts, like most public agencies, are concerned about the costs of getting sued. They want a definitive ruling because school districts forbidden by law from firing a suspected child molester can nonetheless be sued for millions of dollars in civil court -- where the standard of proof is less -- by the victims of such a teacher.
A bad teacher can set students back an entire year or spoil them on education altogether.
Adam Taylor never imagined that he would voluntarily surrender the gold standard of job protections. As a longtime union member, Taylor bought into the notion that teacher tenure was an essential ingredient of good public schools. Without it, teachers would be vulnerable to the whims of backward-thinking school boards and ruthless administrators. Innocent schoolchildren would suffer.
But after several frustrating years watching low-income minority kids fail while their teachers got raises anyway, Taylor grew dissatisfied with tenure. He came to understand that when kids get stuck with an awful teacher, very little can be done. "I've worked with teachers where you would smell alcohol on their breath during the school day and parents would express their concerns, and nothing would come of it," he said, shaking his head.
Taylor completed his break with tenure earlier this year. As part of an experiment designed to refocus the emphasis of public education upon students, Taylor and a group of fellow instructors at one of Oakland's worst schools, E. Morris Cox Elementary, decided to sign away their tenure rights. "It was an easy choice," recalled the tall African-American fifth-grade teacher. "In my opinion, tenure is to protect those who aren't doing their jobs."
At the time, the elementary school was one of thirteen Oakland schools being penalized under No Child Left Behind, the federal law that requires schools receiving antipoverty funds to make "adequate yearly progress" on test scores. Because Cox and the other schools failed to show enough improvement for six consecutive years, they had four choices under the law: to become a charter school, to be taken over by a private management firm, have most of the teachers and principal replaced, or undergo a moderate restructuring plan.
Randolph Ward, the state administrator in charge of Oakland schools, concluded that a moderate restructuring for Cox and seven other schools was inappropriate because they had performed so poorly for so long. So he and his staff came up with an innovative plan to turn the eight campuses into hybrid charter schools. They would be run by Oakland schools personnel, honor most of the teachers' union contracts, and use standard Oakland curricula. However, Ward and his staff demanded that the teachers work longer hours and give up their tenure rights. Kevin Wooldridge, the former Oakland Unified executive director in charge of the new charters, explained that administrators believed the failing schools would not improve unless they were free to get rid of the bad teachers.