Is LCF Teacher’s On-Site Course a Conflict of Interest?

It’s just the type of students they are: For the past five years, La Cañada High School pupils have relinquished some of their summer freedom to attend a workshop hosted by English teacher Justin Valassidis.
He offers two two-week courses designed to bridge the gap between where students left off in 10th grade and the demands they’ll be facing as juniors taking AP English. The class focuses on critical reading, writing, analytical and argumentative skills — abilities that will be valuable next school year, but also, Valassidis said, when taking the AP test in May or preparing for forthcoming college entrance exams.
With the district’s blessing, students have responded favorably for five years running, including paying $325 this summer for 10 approximately two-hour class lessons with the popular teacher, who rents his classroom from the district and covers insurance for the time students are attending.
“The kids love it. I’ve had great demand over the years,” Valassidis said. “I commend them a lot, to be honest, to put that time and effort in to work on their craft.”
As for Valassidis spending some of his summers in class? “I don’t know if it’s even work; I enjoy it so much, it’s a passion.”
Not everyone is as enthused, though. As he told the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board at its meeting Tuesday, private tutor Bill Chitwood believes the arrangement presents a conflict of interest and violates a district policy that states “employees who choose to tutor for remuneration may not tutor a student enrolled in any K-6 grade level at their site or 7-12 subject … to which they are currently assigned.”
LCUSD Superintendent Wendy Sinnette said, in an email, that the district doesn’t consider Valassidis’ summer workshops to be in violation of board policy.
“Valassidis is teaching a summer course as a private agent,” Sinnette wrote. “He has completed a facilities use agreement, paying the district to rent a classroom. The course is not tutoring and is not required by him as a prerequisite to his LCHS courses. Our interpretation is that his summer work is not in violation of the district’s [board policy] or [administrative regulations].”
Chitwood disputed that, saying he found the practice “in violation of both the spirit and letter of this policy.”
He also took issue with the fact that students learn of the workshops on campus during the school year, which he said that board policy — No. 4137 — precludes by stating that employees “may not solicit or advertise their fee-based tutoring at any school facility or in any school publications except for those available to any tutor in the community.”
“Mr. Valassidis used his public school position to contact current 10th- and future 11th-graders directly during school hours in his public school classroom to advertise a fee to them for private services rendered by him in the same taxpayer-provided room where he teaches the same subject under his public teaching union contract,” Chitwood said.
Valassidis, who has taught for 14 years, said he actually wasn’t sure district officials would be on board when he initially proposed the idea. But they agreed to it without issue, he said. Last summer, they rented him space at the district office while the high school was being painted.
This summer’s classes — 20 students are enrolled in the current session and 10 more have signed up so far for the second session that will run through early July — also give him a chance to work more closely with students than during the school year when he’s “grading 60 essays a night.” He added that he has no idea which of those students will be enrolled in his class next year.
“I just love the subject,” he said. “I get to teach them something new as far as nonfiction reading and how to analyze that, and there’s something very invigorating about that.”

Leave a Reply