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Members of the Lazear Elementary School community rally against poor teaching during a demonstration at Oakland Unified School District Headquarters in Oakland, Calif. Thursday, April 15, 2010. Many parents kept their kids out of school at Lazear to protest what they say is poor instruction from one teacher at the school. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff)

OAKLAND — Parents say he took a smoking break during class, leaving his students unattended; that he locked a student in the classroom this past fall and recently grabbed a child by the collar; that he has fallen asleep in class; and that he made the children write, over and over, "I will learn how to shut my mouth."

And, they say, he still works at Lazear Elementary School, more than a year after they filed their first complaint.

On Thursday morning, the parents staged a protest, picketing in front of the school and outside the district headquarters. Only about 60 of 300 Lazear students came to school, Oakland school district spokesman Troy Flint said.

"We've had a lot of meetings, and the teacher is still here," said Rocio Gonzalez, who took part in two other parent demonstrations at Lazear. The first, in 1995, brought attention to the poor physical condition of the facilities; it lasted weeks and drew national attention.

Gonzalez and other demonstrators say the school and district administrations have responded far too slowly to their concerns in the face of rules that protect teachers' employment rights. The process of firing a tenured teacher can be lengthy and contentious — often more difficult than transferring the employee to another school.


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By contrast, dozens of new teachers without tenure protections are dismissed each year without being given a reason. At Wednesday night's board meeting, parents and teachers from Claremont Middle School lined up to urge the board to rescind the dismissal of Jessie Thaler, an eighth-grade English teacher who, they said, was exactly the kind of passionate, creative and talented educator needed in Oakland.

"That's the irony," school board member Noel Gallo said on the street in front of Lazear. "Public education needs to change."

Flint said the district would investigate a report that the teacher had roughly lifted a boy by his collar, leaving marks on his neck. Parents say the incident happened about two weeks ago, before spring break. Flint said the district's ombudsman had just received the complaint.

In response to the reports of unprofessional conduct, Flint said: "We've been working for a long time now to try to find a resolution that gives those involved due process but also addresses the grievances of the families. This effort is complicated by the work rules and contract obligations we have to respect."

Lazear Elementary School is located near Interstate 880 a few blocks from the Fruitvale shopping district. The predominately Latino school has a veteran staff and an organized parent group, and its state test score rose by 39 points last year to 709 out of a possible 1,000.

However, Gallo said the East Oakland school has received four "consolidated" teachers in the past two years, those who transfer from other schools without the say of the receiving principal. The teacher in question, a 20-year veteran, was one of them, he said.

Such job protections are not unique to Oakland's public school system; they are common in collective bargaining agreements between districts and teachers unions. Teachers can move from school to school for a number of reasons — not just because they were unwanted at their previous schools. But, Gallo said, it is not unusual for weaker teachers to end up in poor communities.

"That's the inequality that we all talk about, and then we make speeches about social justice," Gallo said.

Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland teachers union, said she met with the parents Wednesday, hoping to avert the strike. The situation, she said, had grown "ugly," with rumors flying and reports of children taking notes on the teacher's every move.

"We can't just lift a teacher and move him somewhere else because parents don't like him," she said. "The voices of the parents are very important, but at the same time, teachers have rights. "... If it really is not a good fit with the teacher and the school, then there are options."

One of those options, of course, is for the teacher to move to another school.

Meanwhile, Pia Jara, a second-year principal at Lazear, found herself supervising a nearly empty campus. She said that she had held many meetings to address parents' concerns and that she was disappointed they chose to strike. In addition to her concerns about children missing instruction, she said, the school likely would take a financial hit next year, as schools are funded based on average attendance.

"I can see where the process is frustrating sometimes," Jara said. Still, she added, "We all have rights to due process."

Olga Gonzalez, one of the lead organizers, said parents felt compelled to take a stand.

"When we unite, it's for a good cause," she said. "We're not disruptive parents. Our children deserve the best quality of teaching."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.ibabuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.