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Vergara trial: For LA public school teachers, verdict tossing out tenure feels like an attack

Grant Slater/KPCC

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Less than a mile away from Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu's courtroom, dozens of teachers gathered Tuesday afternoon to try to influence the school board on next year's budget.

It's exactly the kind of thing fourth grade teacher Ingrid Villeda said you might see disappear if Treu's ruling is upheld and teacher job protections go away.

“We have tendencies to use policies to hurt teachers that stand with community or stand with students,” said Villeda, who teaches at 93rd street elementary in South Los Angeles.

RELATED: Calif. judge says state teacher protections unconstitutional

During the Los Angeles Unified school board meeting, teachers seemed deflated about Tuesday's ruling, which they saw as a personal attack.

Treu said California's laws that grant teachers tenure after two years, use seniority in layoff decisions and create a complicated mechanism for discipline hurt students. He threw them out as unconstitutional.

"At this point, to see a ruling like this makes me feel like my contributions are not valued, what I bring to students is not recognized," said Bodin Adler, an 8th grade teacher at South Gate Middle School.

Silvio Vidal, another 8th grade teacher at the school, agreed.

“We are not treated as professionals anymore," he said. "We are treated as scapegoats for the problems that exist within our district and within our society.”

The president-elect of their union, United Teachers Los Angeles, went even further.

“To say this kind of dramatic action by the court is what’s necessary is hyperbolic," Alex Caputo-Pearl said. "It’s covering up the real intent, which is to attack unions.”

He said rules that protect longevity help kids by keeping experienced teachers in the classroom.

“They actually protect your investment," he said. "When the district invests in teachers to train them, you want to keep them around. That’s why you have a right to a hearing. That’s why you have seniority.”

The ruling is tentative and will not go into effect while teacher's union officials appeal the decision to a higher court.

The suit was filed in May 2012 on behalf of nine students who attended public schools in three districts: Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified, and the Alum Rock Union School District. It was financed by a Students Matter, a nonprofit created by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and charter school advocate David Welch to file public interest lawsuits. This was the group's first case.

Teachers unions and charter schools are typically at opposite ends of policy discussions.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said the decision isn't an indictment of all teachers. He said he's proud of the "tens of thousands of phenomenal teachers" that work for him. But the firing process for the few that aren't is just too expensive and diverts needed money from classrooms.

"Every day administrators are spending thousands upon thousands and countless hours trying to dismiss ineffective teachers," said Deasy, who testified for the plaintiffs in the case. "That money should be spent on procuring new supplies, instituting new programs, improving teacher salaries, securing critical services for both the professionals and the students, and reducing class size."

During the two-month trail, defense lawyers representing California education officials and teachers’ unions said the process works fine – when administrators use it. They pointed out that Deasy fired more ineffective teachers than his predecessors because he made it a priority.

Members of the L.A. Unified school board are divided over the issue.

"On behalf of my former colleagues, public school teachers, I am deeply saddened that our profession has been so attacked in the in the courts," said board member Bennett Kayser in a written statement. "It is shameful when billionaires use children to mask their efforts to eliminate employees’ hard-won rights. I do believe, however, we shall prevail on the Vergara appeal.”

But board member Tamar Galatzan believes the ruling is a sign of progress.

"The Vergara ruling is the first step toward being able to guarantee that we have great teachers in every LAUSD classroom and other classrooms around the state," she said in a statement. "It is now up to the Legislature to pass laws that provide equal opportunity and provide equal access to a high-quality education."