Each letter arrived differently over the course of four years: by mail, by hand and a third by email.
The letters, each initiating a paid leave of absence, instructed special education teacher Preston Lewis to stay away from Sacramento City Unified schools while the district and at times the police investigated allegations of child sex abuse.
During the third and most recent leave, Lewis was paid to stay home for seven months. For another two weeks, he received $347 a day while booked at Sacramento County jail, where he awaits trial on charges of child sex crimes.
Although Lewis is still employed by Sacramento City Unified, the district moved him to unpaid leave on April 26, more than four years after a state agency revoked his foster care license for allegedly fondling a boy. By the time the district cut him off, Lewis had spent a total of 14 months on three separate paid leaves since 2007. He was paid $87,000 during that time.
The case, while extreme, raises a question the education community has wrangled with for years: Has the bar for firing a teacher been set too high?
School districts say they are bound by a state education code and administrative processes that require hearings and excessive documentation before a teacher can be fired for cause, and that internal investigations are sometimes delayed by lengthy police and court processes.
Union officials say a high bar is what's needed to avoid cronyism and retribution. They say teachers unions should not be blamed if school districts fail to properly document allegations of misconduct.
The average length of time teachers are out on paid leave and resulting cost to taxpayers varies widely by school district.
A Bee analysis found that, during the past five years, Sacramento City Unified paid $1.1 million in salary for 49 teachers to stay home a total of 3,819 school days while they were investigated for alleged misconduct. Not included in that cost is the money spent for those employees' health and retirement benefits, as well as for hiring substitutes to replace the teachers during their leaves.
The allegations of misconduct that prompted those paid leaves ranged broadly and included petty theft, substance abuse and sex offenses. Ultimately, 61 percent of teachers put on paid leave by Sacramento City Unified during that period were allowed to return to the classroom.
City Unified paid substantially more for paid leaves than Twin Rivers, Elk Grove, Folsom Cordova and Natomas school districts. Combined, these other districts paid $599,100 to 42 teachers placed on paid leave for a combined 1,776 school days over the last five years.
The proportion of teachers who returned to the classroom following those leaves varied, from a low of 50 percent in Folsom Cordova to a high of 86 percent in Elk Grove Unified.
The Bee's analysis also found:
The average paid leave at Sacramento City Unified during the past five years was 104 calendar days, or 66 school days. Eleven of the paid leaves lasted longer than 100 school days. The longest continuous paid leave is three school years, two months and counting.
Elk Grove's longest paid leave during that same time frame was 100 school days; the average was 24 school days.
Twin Rivers' average was 94 school days, with the longest leave 17 months and counting.
San Juan Unified officials said they could not provide a comprehensive list of teachers who have been on paid administrative leave due to an outdated computer system. Larry Graser, San Juan's director for certificated personnel, said short of physically pulling every personnel file, there was no way to monitor the data.
So no one does.
No crime report filed
The email to Preston Lewis was short and to the point. The subject line, in bold typeface, read: "Letter of Reprimand (Insubordination)."
Sacramento City Unified's two-page memo, dated Feb. 7, 2007, said Lewis had been instructed by an administrator to stop calling and picking up one of his former middle school students after the boy's father complained. According to the reprimand, Lewis nevertheless continued to pick the boy up on weekends, take him to lunch and buy him gifts.
The memo was placed in Lewis' personnel file alongside an "Improvement Plan" issued in 2006 in response to an earlier evaluation that found Lewis needed professional development. The district provided The Bee with redacted portions of Lewis' personnel file in response to a Public Records Act request.
Lewis and his lawyer declined to comment for this report.
At the time of the 2007 reprimand, Lewis was being investigated by the state Department of Social Services. He was a licensed foster care provider and, according to state court records, had been accused of fondling one boy and showering with another child.
Police were notified, and the state revoked Lewis' foster care license on March 19, 2007.
Sacramento City Unified officials said they found out about the allegations two months later and immediately placed Lewis on paid administrative leave.
Ultimately, Sacramento County sheriff's investigators did not file a crime report, citing insufficient evidence. And without criminal charges, said City Unified spokesman Gabe Ross, the school district had no justification for keeping Lewis out of the classroom.
Lewis returned to Sam Brannan Middle School in November 2007.
"It wasn't like he was charged and found not guilty," Ross said. "He wasn't charged. Unfortunately, we had two options, which were to try to fire him without evidence of wrongdoing or reinstate him."
Had the district known Lewis' foster care license had been revoked, that could have made a difference, Ross said. Simply put, an adverse action by a state agency was the kind of documentation the district says it needs to start the dismissal process.
The state education code spells out specifically what a teacher can be fired for, a list that includes immoral conduct, dishonesty, conviction of a felony or membership in the Communist Party.
The education code also lays out what offenses warrant unpaid leave vs. paid leave.
"There has to be a standard," said Becky Zoglman, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. "Teachers have to be allowed to have a hearing. False allegations can happen."
The education code requires districts to notify a teacher at least 45 days before initiating dismissal proceedings for unprofessional conduct and at least 90 days for unsatisfactory performance.
"If that person doesn't learn the error of their ways after 90 days or 45 days then the district can go for termination," said San Juan's Graser.
The teacher is again notified in writing. Typically, he or she appeals, Graser said. At that point, the matter goes to a three-person panel that includes a teachers union representative, a district representative and an administrative law judge.
"It takes a while to set up the hearing, conduct the hearing; that full process can be months or years," Graser said.
The onus is on the school district to clearly document its assertion. The education code doesn't spell out how much documentation is needed, but Graser said it is substantial.
"From my perspective it's frustrating how much we have to document," he said. "From the employees' perspective, they have the right of employment and so we need to make sure it's serious."
Zoglman said there are many cases of false allegations against teachers, making their right to due process extremely important.
"There was a teacher in Los Angeles and allegations were made (by a student) of sexual misconduct," Zoglman said. "It turned out to be a troubled student who made false allegations. That's why you have a due process hearing, so the process can play out. Sometimes, it happens because a student wants revenge."
Zoglman said she believes California's current laws provide for a swift dismissal process.
But another major teachers union would like to see changes. Tired of being blamed for long paid leaves, the American Federation of Teachers voted in February to adopt rules aimed at removing tenured teachers accused of crimes or misconduct through an expedited process.
Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond said he plans to work with the Sacramento City Teachers Association this spring to look at ways of streamlining the district's procedures. Linda Tuttle, the union president, did not return calls for comment.
In-class assault alleged
The letter was delivered in person, handed to Preston Lewis on June 4, 2010, just days before the end of the school year.
There were new allegations, but these were not levied against Lewis.
A female middle school student in Lewis' special education class told the principal and another teacher that she was sexually assaulted during class by a group of boys as Lewis sat "at his desk looking at his computer," according to documents from the district's internal investigation. The same student told a teacher that boys in Lewis' class watched pornography during class on their cell phones.
Questioned about the allegations, Lewis told his assistant principal that he knew nothing of the incident and that the female student "had been aggressive toward boys since day one," according to the documents. However, an adult instructional aide in the room at the time of the incident told school officials he heard the boys make inappropriate comments to the girl and told Lewis, the documents said.
The district investigated and determined Lewis wasn't "complicit" in the alleged assault, Ross said. So, after 10 days on paid leave, Lewis was told he would resume teaching in Room 10 at Sam Brannan Middle School after summer vacation.
But before the school year began in September, another allegation surfaced.
The mother of a Sam Brannan special education student provided a detailed account of conversations she had with her son in which the boy said Lewis encouraged him to masturbate and show Lewis his penis, according to documents in Lewis' personnel file.
At that point, the school district contacted the Sacramento Police Department. On Sept. 3, the district emailed Lewis to tell him he was again being placed on paid leave.
In October, the district took a step toward firing Lewis, citing the allegations from the female student who said she was molested by classmates as an example of "unprofessional conduct," according to documents provided by Sacramento City Unified.
"I find that you have not been honest," wrote Robert Garcia, chief human resources officer, in a letter to Lewis. "Even if you were somehow unaware of these serious incidents that occurred in your presence, your duty as a classroom teacher is to supervise and maintain control of your students."
Ross said City Unified took no further action for six months while awaiting the results of a police investigation.
The District Attorney's Office charged Lewis on April 11 with six counts of lewd acts with a 7-year-old boy in 2004-05 and one count of contacting a 14-year-old boy with the intent to commit a sexual offense between March 1 and Sept. 1 last year.
Authorities would not comment on whether any of the charges stemmed from allegations that the state or district had previously investigated.
With the charges filed, Ross said the district had enough to put Lewis on unpaid leave. Still employed by the district, he returns to court May 11.