From left, Riley Calcagno, Julia Furukawa, and Emma Chrisman. Furukawa and Chrisman have stepped up to teach Garfield choir courses. Photo by Casey Jaywork

Why Is SPS Dragging Its Feet On Bringing Back a Beloved Choir Teacher?

Despite a ruling that Carol Burton should have her job back, Seattle Public Schools is keeping her out of the classroom and leaving it to students to run the Garfield choir program.

It’s been a rough year for the choir at Garfield High.

“The choir program is in just one huge mess,” says Garfield teacher union representative Kit McCormick, “because they haven’t had a teacher for so long,” just “a sub in there who doesn’t know music.”

It’s been more than a year now since Seattle Public Schools administrators put Garfield choir teacher Carol Burton on administrative leave following a field trip to New Orleans during which a male student groped two female students. Burton appealed the decision, arguing that the male student had a history of sexual misconduct that the district should have notified her about; two weeks ago, a hearings examiner sided with her, ruling that she should be allowed to go back to work.

But the decision won’t erase the damage done to the choir program in the year she’s been absent, and the school district doesn’t seem in a hurry to get Burton back into a classroom. She remains, contrary to the hearing examiner’s ruling, on administrative leave. Meanwhile, the choir classes are by all accounts now being run by students.

Garfield student Julia Furukawa says that after Burton was sent away last year, she and fellow student Emma Chrisman “assumed leadership roles in choir classes in order to keep them afloat for the last few months of school.” This past fall, the pair was stoked to learn that the district had hired a replacement with a doctoral degree in musical arts. But early in spring semester, that teacher stood up and walked out of school in the middle of a class—three days before the choir went to Oregon to compete in a jazz festival, according to choir students. (The students say they still took home two awards.) That teacher is now on unpaid leave, according to district spokesperson Stacy Howard.

Since that teacher’s departure, the choir has had a couple of substitutes, but none with adequate training. So Furukawa and Chrisman stepped in again to fill the breach.

“I have been teaching the classes since I feel somewhat responsible for the program, and because I can’t stand to see students who love music lose the opportunity to experience it,” says Furukawa. She’s enrolled in concert choir during fourth period, while Chrisman is in vocal jazz, which meets after school. Furukawa leads her own class under the supervision of a substitute, and visits the other two classes (treble and men’s choirs) to help out when she can.

Furukawa sometimes works on lesson plans during other classes.

Furukawa’s math teacher Eric Heye says that he has let Furukawa out of class about once a week, though that has varied. “She has a stellar grade in my class, she knocks most of my tests out of the park,” he says. “So I figured as long as she could keep her studies up … I was OK with that.”

But it’s far from ideal for a student to be teaching a class. And despite Furukawa and Chrisman’s efforts, the two say that enrollment in Garfield’s choral program has fallen by more than half during Burton’s absence. “We have put in countless hours on top of all the other stresses and time commitments in our lives to try and hold this program together,” says Chrisman. “It shouldn’t be legal to leave students in a class without an adequate teacher.” In fact, Burton’s continued administrative leave may not be legal. McCormick, the union representative, points out that in the contract between teachers and the district, only two reasons are permitted for placing a teacher on administrative leave: they’re a safety risk, or they’re under investigation for misconduct. Since the hearing examiner’s ruling on April 26, neither condition has applied. Furthermore, Washington law requires that when a teacher such as Burton wins her appeal, “the employee shall be restored to his or her employment position.”

Following the hearing examiner’s ruling, the district released a statement saying it was “disappointed” and “will continue to review the findings to determine next steps.” Asked about the legality of continuing to keep Burton on leave, district spokesperson Howard replied, “We are not going to talk about details of why somebody is on leave because it’s a personnel matter.”

Riley Calcagno, another student who’s been helping Furukawa and Chrisman keep the choir afloat, thinks this is nonsense. Whenever students allege wrongdoing on the part of district officials, he says, officials use privacy rules to avoid responding to specific allegations while still generally denying wrongdoing in a nonspecific way. “It turns into a ‘We said, they said’  ” game, he says, in which students are presumed to be less honest than officials. “And [observers] are like, ‘Would the Seattle school district lie? Of course not!’  ”

We asked Heye why he thinks the district is so reluctant to reinstate Burton, given that they’re paying her anyway.

“It seems like—and this is purely my interpretation—the district, they’re kind of upset that they got caught, I guess,” he says. “They’ve lost a bunch of ground, and I think that they’re grasping at straws for whatever small victory” they can get. “It’s like, she may have won the court case, but at least we can keep our pound of flesh by keeping her out of the classroom for the rest of the year … It feels kind of petty, and not in the students’ interest.”

CLARIFICATION Due to an editing error, this story originally stated that Furukawa sometimes skips class to work on choir lesson plans. In fact, she sometimes works on lesson plans while in other classes.

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