Was a popular Manhattan Beach, CA teacher fired for speaking out?
It’s field trip time, reader, and you’ll need your upscale duds for this trek. We’re headed to Manhattan Beach, CA, known for spectacular coastal views, pricey real estate and some of the highest performing schools in the Golden State. But these days there’s something fishy in the air here—and it’s not just the sea lions. For weeks now, students and parents in Manhattan Beach have been up in arms over the firing of Tim Hirsh, a beloved French teacher at Mira Costa High. So why exactly did Hirsh get the axe? There’s only one way to find out, reader. Into the bathyspheres—we’ve got murky waters to plumb…
Meet the principles
Our story begins last month when Hirsh, who started teaching French at Mira Costa High in 2013, was denied tenure by the school’s principal, who moved to dismiss him at the end of the school year—a decision later affirmed by the school board. Why no amour for a teacher who is credited with rescuing a french program in *tatters,* is j’adored by students and parents alike, and had previously only received glowing recommendations from his higher ups? The sudden end to Hirsh’s career at Mira Costa seems to come down to what the local paper, with whom Hirsh shared his personnel file, describes as *minor claims of unprofessionalism.* There was that time when Hirsh failed to *demonstrate proper respect when he gave a speech at a welcome event for 8th grade students.* And that other time when, after the school had been locked down for two days in response to a terrorist threat, Hirsh arranged for a substitute teacher, and included 25 minutes of free time in his substitute lesson plan.
A bit of back story
No doubt you are wondering at this point: mightn’t our histoire have a bit of back histoire? Why, oui! You see, last spring Hirsh spoke out at a school board meeting about a $1 million accounting error that led to the *pink-slipping* of 25 Manhattan Beach teachers, including Hirsh. The only non-tenured teacher to speak, Hirsh raised pointed questions about how it was that the district had lost sight of seven digits worth of money, which, *coincidentally* had ended up in a fund out of which teachers couldn’t be paid. And Hirsh also allied himself publicly with the teachers union, the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association. Suddenly Hirsh’s histoire is sounding all too familiar. Deja vu, anyone?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before
In fact, the more I probed into the story of Hirsh’s firing, the more familiar it all began to feel. A pattern of dishonesty and bad faith by district leadership? Check. A bullying *management vs. labor* attitude by administrators and members of the board of trustees? Check. No accountability for things like accidentally misplacing $1,000,000? Check. How about a questionably-conceived IPad program paid for by questionable means? Check. Check. I asked recent Mira Costa grad Brian Martin, a former student of Hirsh’s who now attends USC, to explain to me why things in this southern California district seemed to have gone south. *When I was a freshman we got a new superintendent and a new high school principal and the whole attitude towards teachers changed. Now you hear about board members wanting to crush the union. Is that even legal?*
A numbers game
Enough with the all-too-familiar back story. Shall we delve into the numbers? No—not the 25 minutes of free study time during which Hirsh’s students could practice their future tense French verbs. I’m talking about the mis-filed million bucks. Here’s the official explanation of l’erreur by Manhattan Beach Superintendent Michael Matthews. (Full disclosure: I have read it four times and still have no idea what it says). Which is why I turned to local schools watchdog and parent Kim Leserman. *The kind of accounting error he’s describing would have been spotted long before it reached $1 million. There’s something else going on here.* In fact, Leserman, who runs her own business and formerly served on the school district’s fiscal advisory committee, is convinced that the *something else* borders on corruption. *This is about fiscal mismanagement, and worse, an attempt by district leaders to stonewall the public and cover up highly questionable practices.* Leserman hopes that her public records requests will shine some much needed sunlight on the district’s books.
*This is about fiscal mismanagement, and worse, an attempt by district leaders to stonewall the public and cover up highly questionable practices.*
A lesson in democracy
So far we’ve covered French and math. Which means it’s time for social studies. When students at Mira Costa High caught wind that their one of their fave teachers was getting the professional equivalent of la guillotine, they sprang into action. They started a Facebook page and a Save Hirsh website, collected testimony from students about why they love Mr. Hirsh, and recruited masses of students and parents to urge school board members not to let Hirsh go. Oh, and they learned a hard lesson or two about democracy. That school board meeting where students gathered to sing Hirsh’s praises? It turned out that the all important vote took place in advance, before the students even arrived. Then there was the lunch time rally, where students chanted *Save Hirsh* and *do the right thing* in English and French, prompting a *militarized* response from Mira Costa administrators, who summoned police and blocked entrances to the school. But if administrators were hoping to teach students a lesson of the *sit down and conjugate your French verbs* variety, they seem to have failed spectacularly. Team Hirsh is headed back to the school board today and is now talking about the possibility of launching recall efforts against several board members.
Students Matter (until they don’t)
While Tim Hirsh doesn’t want to speculate on what his firing was ultimately about—or what lies ahead— he was happy to share with me what he believes the decision ISN’T about. *I definitely do NOT believe this is about getting rid of bad teachers, as the vast majority of my reviews were extremely positive (except for the very last one, of course), and I have received a great deal of positive feedback from students, parents, fellow teachers, assistant principals…I definitely do NOT believe this is about respecting students and parents as stakeholders, because it is obvious that their voices are being ignored, and in some cases, even shut down,* says Hirsh. And while he may be just one teacher at one high school in one school district, Hirsh believes that others should care about his story because his students care so much. *When is the last time anyone ever saw that many people at a board meeting for a teacher? Don’t we want to teach our students to be invested and engaged in the democratic process when elected leaders abuse it?*
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