Cortines springs an art teacher after months in ‘teacher jail’
Vanessa Romo | December 17, 2014
LA Unified art teacher Stuart Lutz had a celebratory homecoming today as he returned to the classroom after nearly eight months in so-called “teacher jail.”
Lutz was pulled from South Gate Middle School on April 21 while the district investigated allegations of mishandling fundraising money for an annual field trip to Disneyland Art Studio.
Throughout the investigation, Lutz, who is the teachers union Chapter Chair for the school, and his supporters maintained there was no wrong-doing and claimed the disciplinary actions taken against him were in retaliation for his queries into the school budget, complaints about insufficient campus restrooms, and concerns about unsafe conditions for students.
A request for comment from the district’s legal counsel on the findings of the investigation was not returned. However, UTLA spokesperson Suzanne Spurgeon told LA School Report, “At the urging of UTLA, the District — under [Superintendent Ramon] Cortines— took a closer look at Lutz’s case and agreed he should be allowed back at South Gate Middle School.”
In recent years there has been a rapid rise in the number of teachers accused of misconduct and removed from school campuses and forced to report to “work” at district buildings and later, at home. But even as their numbers have grown, accused teachers complain they are often kept in the dark about the charges against them and any progress made in their cases. Investigations can take several months or even years to conclude.
More than 250 teachers are on administrative leave while the district investigates their cases.
The practice is so widespread that it’s become one of the cornerstones of UTLA contract negotiations. The union is calling on the district to speed up the process and provide more transparency throughout.
“The district has recognized that this process required changes and it has been in the process of making changes,” Vivian Ekchian, the district’s Chief Labor Negotiator, told LA School Report.
Ekchian says important changes have been implemented within the last two months. Now, she says, “If there’s an allegation of misconduct then the decision as to whether the person should be reassigned to home or to work at an another location is being monitored much with greater scrutiny, before a pending investigation.”
The investigatory process has also been streamlined, according to Ekchian. And the district has formed a focus group that includes labor partners to provide feedback to the individuals involved in the process.