By Yvette tenBerge
On April 4, hundreds of San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) teachers gathered outside of Kearny High School, located at 7651 Wellington Way, to protest Superintendent Alan Bersin’s “State of the District” address, a speech in which he highlighted successes, outlined goals and promised to collaborate with teachers.
Despite the technologically advanced show presented by the district’s communications team inside, the display that captured the spotlight was a colorful, cardboard sign that read: “Hail Führer Bersin” carried by Ricardo Sanchez, a teacher at Robert E. Lee Elementary who was marching outside.
Five weeks later on May 14, the SDUSD board voted 5-0 to terminate Mr. Sanchez, 50, a 30-year teacher who is an expert in special education and the allocation of Title I funds, federal monies provided for the education of disadvantaged students. The district has faced lawsuits and heavy criticism in its handling of both of these areas.
Although a contract between the teacher’s union and the district outlines strict procedures that must be followed when terminating tenure teachers, Mr. Sanchez states that he first learned of his termination on May 15, the day he was escorted off campus by a school police officer.
“I was in the middle of my sixth grade class, and my vice-principal came to get me and told me that I had to come to the [principal’s] office. I was supposed to send my kids to the other sixth grade teachers,” says Mr. Sanchez, who explains that a district representative from human resources and a campus police officer were waiting for him in the office. “I was told to go back to my room and load up as much stuff as I could.”
With help from a San Diego Education Association (SDEA) representative and his vice-principal, Mr. Sanchez left the school at which he had been teaching for the past year with two boxes and a bag filled with personal items.
“I’m sure that the kids could see what was happening through the classroom windows, and I felt like a criminal. I felt like all of the presumptions I’d made in carrying the ‘Hail Führer Bersin’ sign had become actualized,” says Mr. Sanchez, who relates his experience to the “Gestapo state” of Nazi Germany. “The worst part was that I was being taken out during the last month of school, and I would miss the sixth grade graduation and picnic.”
Robin Whitlow, Executive Director for the SDEA, is not familiar with the details of Mr. Sanchez’ case, but states that the termination procedure, when correctly followed, takes anywhere from a few months to one year. It involves the teacher in question being notified of the problem and being given the opportunity to improve. If satisfactory improvement is not made, the teacher is served with a letter allowing him 30 to 90 days to request a hearing on the charges brought against him. This hearing, which resembles a “more relaxed” court case, is presided over by three “judges” and the recommendation they make is binding.
“Variance can occur when a situation is dangerous, and the firing process can be very quick if criminal charges are involved,” says Ms. Whitlow, who adds that the quickest she has ever seen a teacher fired following legal district procedures is a “couple of months.”
Although Mr. Sanchez’ April 4 sign carrying episode is not mentioned in his notice of termination, the nature of the 2000, 2001, 2002 charges listed combined with the timing of the notice and the degree to which district procedures were not followed raises questions.
The causes listed begin in the 2000 to 2001 school year while Mr. Sanchez was teaching English at Longfellow School, a total Spanish Emersion Magnet School in the SDUSD. On January 6, 2000, Mr. Sanchez is said to have squeezed students’ arms and to have “yelled” at them during an earthquake drill, and on June 6, 2001 it was noted that these actions were repeated during a fire drill.
Mr. Sanchez sighs as he explains these two incidents. “These were issues where I pulled these kids out of line in front of the whole school. This whole thing was hashed out with the principal and in front of other teachers,” says Mr. Sanchez, who claims that his principal at the time, Patricia Ludi, who left the SDUSD shortly after this incident, promised to expunge the complaints from his record.
Ms. Ludi, who is now a principal in an elementary school in Chula Vista, did not respond to La Prensa San Diego’s inquiries into this matter.
Sandy Garcia, who requested that she not be identified because “it’s not prudent for anyone to speak out against the district,” was a colleague of Mr. Sanchez’ at Longfellow during these incidents. She witnessed both the earthquake and fire drill incidents and confirms Mr. Sanchez’ statements.
“The whole school was out for these drills, including kids and teachers. Many of these kids were not doing what they were supposed to be doing, and in these cases, sometimes you have to touch them to get them back into line,” says Ms. Garcia, who has taught for more than two decades. “Nowadays, students will accuse teachers of abuse just to get their parents angry and involved, but Mr. Sanchez wasn’t in a verbal fight with these kids and his actions didn’t fit the definition of abuse.”
Ms. Garcia was not present to hear Ms. Ludi’s alleged promise to expunge the charges from Mr. Sanchez’ record, but she is clear on her view: “Whether or not those incidents were removed from his record shouldn’t matter. He acted within normal school procedures so the ‘charges’ wouldn’t need to have been expunged.”
Things became even more rocky for Mr. Sanchez in the 2001-2002 school year when he began teaching sixth grade at Robert E. Lee Elementary under Principal Anna Cazares. From November 2001 through March 2002, Mr. Sanchez was “written up” for things such as “threatening” to remove a point from students’ grades if they “went to the principal,” asking students who had been pulled from his class by Ms. Cazares to tell him details about their conversation, accusing one student of “lying” and telling another that she was, “not in kindergarten, young lady.”
In a March 11 complaint that Mr. Sanchez filed with the district he claims that Ms. Cazares’ “harassment” of him began after he confronted her at a site governance team meeting in which district teachers were being asked to sign off on a waiver for Title I funds. According to federal law, these funds must be used to directly benefit disadvantaged students, and parent groups traditionally sign off on the allocation of these funds in order to insure that they are properly funneled into programs for these students.
For the past three years Superintendent Bersin has used these funds to support his “Blueprint for Student Success,” a pricey, literacy-focused program that aims to “close the achievement gap” between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students, and parents have filed lawsuits to protest the redirection of these funds.
From 1991 to 1997, though, Mr. Sanchez worked in the U.S. Department of Education’s National Title I Program Supervision Department in Washington D.C. He states that he was “appalled” at the district’s December attempts to appropriate Title I funds for the Blueprint.
“I vehemently opposed the waiver, and I talked it down to parents. From that point on I believe that I was a target,” says Mr. Sanchez, who was trained to “bring up issues that were worrisome” while working in Washington D.C. “In January when Robert E. Lee’s official vote was taken to grant the district the waiver, Ms. Cazares was the only person who voted in favor of it.”
Ms. Cazares did not return La Prensa San Diego’s calls regarding Mr. Sanchez’ case.
After Mr. Sanchez’ time with the U.S. Department of Education he served as an Area Manager for the SDUSD’s Special Education Programs Division from1997 to 1999. During this time he supervised 37 school sites and reported directly to the Assistant Superintendent. One year after Superintendent Bersin was hired, though, Mr. Sanchez was demoted and returned to the classroom.
Kelly Anderson, who requested that her name be changed because “the climate at the district is so bad right now,” has been with the SDUSD for over a decade. She was a colleague of Mr. Sanchez’ during this period and recalls being impressed with Mr. Sanchez’ “passion for children and passion for special education.” She remembers when he was notified of his demotion in 1999.
“He had no idea it was going to happen. I think going back to the classroom after all of those years of service would have been a hard pill for anyone to have to swallow,” says Ms. Anderson, who describes Mr. Sanchez as a “really intelligent and nice person” who is “vocal if he sees something unjust.” “He was punished for telling a site administrator to do his job.”
Based upon positive comments from his colleagues, an impressive list of educational degrees and a resume that exhibits a continuous climb up the educational administration ladder until 1999, Mr. Sanchez appears to have been highly effective.
When asked about his vote to terminate Mr. Sanchez, Trustee John de Beck explains that he does not “selectively pick out cases to support or not, since the final test of all these dismissals is the legal hearing process.” He takes a second look at Mr. Sanchez’ case and sums it up as another instance in which the district will lose due to “shaky data and student hearsay.”
“Talented career teachers are under a good deal of pressure in San Diego at the present time. Those who express themselves are finding that lapses of judgment, such as trying to control disruptive students by using non-abusive, physical contact may be used as a basis for dismissal,” says Mr. de Beck. “In the case of Sanchez, nearly 50 percent of the accusations deal with behavior that seems to be the kind of thing that comes from feeling the pressure of intense scrutiny and antagonism.”
When asked if he regrets being outspoken on issues such as the district’s handling of Title I funds, special education or even his opinions as to the quality of the superintendent’s management style, Mr. Sanchez admits that there were times when he was scared.
“Yes, I was afraid that I was in danger of losing my job, but I wasn’t going to lose my integrity. I was trained to give my feedback, not to keep quiet and let things pass me by,” says Mr. Sanchez. “I did not want to teach my students or their parents that people can abuse them and nobody will complain.”