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Legislators, advocate want limit set on teacher investigations

Mike Williams, a former Baltimore County teacher, reported to work at this warehouse for more than a year. He was paid to sit inside while accusations about him were investigated.
Mike Williams, a former Baltimore County teacher, reported to work at this warehouse for more than a year. He was paid to sit inside while accusations about him were investigated. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

A limit should be set on the time it takes to clear or dismiss a teacher accused of misconduct so that employees do not remain out of their schools for months and even years, legislators and education advocates said this week.

While two legislators suggested action by the General Assembly, an education advocate said some agreement could be reached between unions and school systems on how to expedite a process that is expensive to taxpayers and detrimental to children whose classrooms are staffed by substitutes.

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"I think given that everyone's interest is the same here, it could be the opportunity for unions and schools systems and others to come together and commit to a reasonable amount of time" for the investigations to be completed, said Jason Botel, executive director of MarylandCAN, an education advocacy organization.

Bill Ferguson, a Maryland senator representing Baltimore City, said he believes some state legislation could be passed.

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"The system that exists today is overly complex and burdensome," he said.

Hundreds of employees are escorted out of the region's schools every year after they are accused of misconduct, a practice that legislators, advocates, teachers unions and school officials agree is appropriate. But a recent Baltimore Sun report showed that in some counties, teachers have been sent to school system warehouses, where they can languish for up to a year while still being paid full salaries.

Much of the time they are reading, playing board games and sleeping, though occasionally they fill requests from schools for supplies, according to interviews with teachers in Baltimore County who have been assigned to the warehouse. In the meantime, substitute teachers are hired to take over their classrooms, so taxpayers pay the salary for the teacher accused of misconduct and the substitute.

James Brochin, a state senator representing Baltimore County, said to leave cases in limbo for a year is "preposterous."

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"We could put a timetable on when these cases have to be resolved," he said.

School officials say they too want to reduce the time the process can take but point out that investigations involving police and social services agencies must be completed before schools can conduct their own investigation.

Mychael Dickerson, a spokesman for the Baltimore County schools, said most cases are completed in a timely manner. In the past year, the county has had more than twice as many employees out on paid administrative leave as other counties in the Baltimore area.

Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County state senator, said limitations on investigations might make theoretical sense, but they could be difficult to enforce. If a teacher's misconduct required a police investigation that wasn't completed in time, he said, would the school system be required to return the teacher to a classroom?

"I don't know if there is a systemic solution that makes sense," said Pinsky, adding that he doesn't approve of the idea of sending teachers to warehouses or students being taught for long periods by a substitute.

Teachers union officials said they favor an expedited system and believe it can be done with more investigators assigned to the cases.

"Teachers deserve a fair investigation and hearing on an expedited timeline so that they can move back into the classroom or on with their lives. This is best achieved through school systems devoting adequate resources and staffing to the process, rather than targeting educators' due process rights," Adam Mendelson, a spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents most of the state's teachers, said in an e-mail.

Teachers also are allowed to appeal cases to the local school board and the state school board, which can add to the time investigations take.

"There are so many steps and so many delays in the steps along the way. The complex system leads to these kind of outcomes," said Ferguson, a former city teacher.

There also may be limitations to what the legislature can do. Currently, state law specifies the reasons a school system can fire a teacher, such as misconduct, incompetence and insubordination, and how the appeals process should work.

But it does not say how long investigations can take or where a teacher will be assigned while on administrative leave. Many such details are spelled out in individual union contracts.

For example, in Anne Arundel County, spokesman Bob Mosier said the school system tries to match an employee's abilities to an open job that isn't in a school before assigning them to the warehouse.

A national debate over what protections teachers should have is raging outside Maryland. Reformers have argued in two well-publicized lawsuits that provisions in state laws or regulations make it too difficult to fire teachers for incompetence or misconduct. Unions say the effort will hurt the teaching profession and are necessary protections.

Ferguson and Brochin said they believe a teacher's right to due process must be maintained, but that school systems should be given the ability to speed up the time it takes to resolve a case.

"If there is a clear and fair process, everyone benefits," said Ferguson, adding that there needs to be a middle ground between protecting teachers and leaving a classroom without a fully qualified teacher.

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