A Question of Competence

State Comptroller John Sharp has suggested that HISD needs to fire more incompetent teachers. But as the case of Beverly Goodie shows, it's not that simple. Just how do you tell who's incompetent? And what happens when you try?

That's not always how it happens. Termination hearings are not casual discussions; they amount to full-blown trials. Beverly Goodie's hearing took place during the first week of last June at the HISD personnel building. The hearing examiner was Houston attorney Mary E. O'Keefe. HISD was represented by David Hodgins, an attorney for the district's primary law firm of many years, Bracewell and Patterson. Goodie was represented by Chris Tritico, who handles many cases for the Houston Federation of Teachers.

After four days of testimony, and nearly a month of assessing the record, Mary O'Keefe ruled in mid-July that HISD didn't have "good cause" to fire Beverly Goodie. She found that Amstutz had violated district policy in not using an assault investigation team to investigate the allegations of corporal punishment. She further ruled that by failing to fire Goodie when the incidents were alleged to have happened, the school district had conceded they weren't adequate cause for firing. O'Keefe also ruled that HISD's policies on corporal punishment are so vague as to be unconstitutional.

As for Goodie's tardiness, O'Keefe ruled that Goodie had remedied her behavior after February 1996. And concerning Goodie's final evaluation in March, O'Keefe said the documents and testimony clearly showed that Amstutz had already made up his mind about Goodie by then. She further ruled that Amstutz had violated board policy by failing to complete the formal evaluation form before his termination recommendation. In any case, O'Keefe added, Goodie was capable of improving her teaching. So her firing was overturned.

Or at least it was for the moment. Under the 1995 state law, the school board had the right to review the case, and all nine board members were given 750 pages of testimony and 940 pages of supporting evidence to study for a hearing last September. At that hearing, a lawyer for each side was given ten minutes to re-present his case. When the board voted, it overturned O'Keefe's ruling, and said Goodie was indeed fired.

The board reviewed the same evidence as had O'Keefe, but gave it different weight. O'Keefe, for example, had paid scant attention to the testimony of the boy who said that Goodie had hit him with a rolled up book, noting that despite a police investigation, no charges were filed. HISD took the boy's testimony more seriously, and added it to the conclusions of fact. Where O'Keefe concluded that no evidence was presented that Goodie's tardiness was a burden to her school, HISD included Amstutz's testimony that other staff members had to supervise her classroom. The district also emphasized that Goodie had failed to follow suggestions for improvement provided by Melanie Uzzell.

The board then threw out all of O'Keefe's conclusions of law and replaced them with the district's original argument: that Goodie failed to follow directives and policy, had violated corporal punishment rules and had failed to comply with her professional growth plan. She needed, the board ruled, to go.

But a hearing examiner for the Texas Education Agency said no; after reviewing the case last fall, the examiner overturned the board and upheld O'Keefe's original decision reinstating Goodie. Following another appeal by HISD to the state, Texas Education Agency commissioner Mike Moses again upheld the original verdict. The state had declared that Beverly Goodie was entitled to her job.

So now HISD plans to pursue the matter in district court, asserting that the fundamental right of a school board to decide who works in its district must be upheld. The TEA and Beverly Goodie's lawyer are arguing that the school board cannot overturn a hearing examiner's decision unless it can show that important facts or questions of law were ignored.

The dispute raises interesting questions. Why have a termination hearing at all if the school board can then simply rewrite the conclusions to suit its own aims? But then, why have the board review such decisions if it can't change them? Who should be the final arbiter?

Such issues have little to do with Beverly Goodie anymore, though they could have important implications for how HISD deals with its termination process. Goodie has not drawn any salary since last October, but is now eligible to draw her back salary at the rate of $45,000 a year. That could go on for two more years if HISD loses in district court and appeals all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.

When Goodie left Cage Elementary after 16 years, she packed up 35 boxes of teaching materials she had accumulated. It took three trips to haul them to her garage where they now sit, waiting for her to use them again. If she ever does go back to work for the Houston Independent School District, it won't be at Cage Elementary.

Was Beverly Goodie an effective teacher? Did her children learn to read and write and calculate and behave themselves? Mary O'Keefe apparently thought so, though she seems to have paid more attention to the students' performance on a routine math test Goodie administered in the presence of a district evaluator than to Steven Amstutz's performance reviews. The other evidence of how well Goodie taught is largely anecdotal, which is perhaps unavoidable given that the district doesn't systematically measure academic skills at each grade level.

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