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Back to February Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 301 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS FEBRUARY 2011

'Rubber Rooms' Gone, But Idle NY Teachers Still Getting Salaries
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Bad Publicity Spurs Agreement

In a much-ballyhooed announcement last April, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city's teachers' union agreed to scrap "rubber rooms" full of teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence, and to accelerate disciplinary hearings that often dragged on for years. The rooms, officially called reassignment centers, had become a public relations nightmare for both Bloomberg and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), as reports proliferated of teachers playing cards, sleeping or running businesses out of the rooms, all while they continued to draw full salaries.

The city of New York was paying in excess of $30 million a year to more than 700 teachers and administrators at the time of the deal. Under the agreement, teachers were to be assigned administrative or other non-classroom duties until their cases were resolved. The arrangement also set new deadlines to speed hearings, and increased the number of arbitrators from 23 to 39 to wipe out the backlog of cases by the end of 2010.

"This was an absurd and expensive abuse of tenure. We've been able to solve what was one of the most divisive issues in our school system," said Bloomberg at a self-congratulatory press conference.

Success Overstated

Recent reports reveal, however, that the pronouncement of success may have been overstated. Though the number of teachers and administrators still in reassignment was down to 236 in mid-November, those with cases still pending were either doing menial make-work projects or remained idle.

"They told me to sit in a little chair in a corner and never get up and walk around," said Hal Lanse, a teacher from Queens accused of sexual harassment. The $100,000-a-year teacher was assigned to an administrative office but was charged with insubordination when he refused to get off the couch where he was dozing to "paper-clip some papers." At last report, Lanse was collecting his full salary from home with plans to retire in January 2011. "There are indeed still rubber rooms," he told the New York Times. "They just don't call them that."

Verona Gill, a $100,000-a-year special education teacher the city is trying to fire, spent the first two weeks of the school year sitting around the Lower Manhattan education offices waiting for an assignment. Then she was sent to another office to hand out language exams that very few people came to pick up. She spent the next few months in a cubicle in Downtown Brooklyn with a broken computer. "I have no projects to do, so I sit there until 2:50 p.m. — that's six hours and 50 minutes [the official length of the teacher workday]. And then I swipe out," she said.

Real Problem Remains Unaddressed

While the agreement between Bloomberg and the union may have given both parties a temporary public relations boost, in reality it did little to change the lengthy and laborious process required to fire teachers, especially those charged with incompetence rather than malfeasance. The union actually conceded very little in the deal; a combination of state tenure laws and union rules ensure that administrators must still spend months or even years documenting poor performance or gathering witness testimonies and other evidence of wrongdoing.

Dan Weisberg, a former labor chief for the Department of Education, was not impressed with the Bloomberg/UFT agreement. "The problem we should be trying to solve is that there are huge barriers that still exist to terminate chronically ineffective teachers. This agreement doesn't appear to address that at all," he said, speaking as the current vice president of the New Teacher Project, a group that wants better teacher evaluations and a simpler dismissal process.

Despite spending $2 million to hire attorneys to help principals fire bad teachers, New York has managed to fire only three teachers for incompetence in the last two years. Misconduct is a little easier to prove; 45 teachers were let go for offenses including corporal punishment, sexual harassment or criminal behavior.

While they wait for their cases to be adjudicated, teachers typically enjoy full pay and benefits. Meanwhile, districts must employ substitute teachers, case investigators, and arbitrators in addition to paying the accused teachers. Costs can easily run from $300,000-$400,000 to fire one bad teacher when continued salaries and benefits are taken into account.

Astonishingly, even the most egregious cases don't always result in a firing. For example, Roland Pierre was arrested on felony sex-abuse charges after allegedly molesting a sixth-grade girl in an empty classroom in 1997. According to the New York Post, Pierre has collected $97,101 a year in salary and health, pension, and vacation benefits for a job he hasn't done for the past 13 years. Officials declined to provide details, but apparently the criminal charges against Pierre were dropped and an Education Department disciplinary case was thrown out "on a technicality." Hired in 1986, Pierre could have retired at age 62, the same year charges were filed against him, but he continues on the payroll even now at age 75 because the Department of Education has no mandatory retirement age.

In another egregious case, Queens teacher Francisco Olivares, 61, was accused of showing a 12-year-old porn, photographing her with her pants down, and rubbing up against another 12-year-old girl. His conviction was reversed on a technicality. Olivares collected his $94,154 salary for seven years before retiring last year. He should have been fired two decades before he was finally sent to the "rubber room." The Education Department botched a case against him all the way back in 1978 when he impregnated a 16-year-old student; he avoided rape charges by marrying the girl and remained in the classroom until he was caught molesting other young girls.

Laid Off Teachers Get Full Pay Too

Those accused of incompetence and wrongdoing aren't the only teachers collecting salaries for not working in New York. The state also continues to pay about 1,100 teachers who lost their jobs due to budget cuts or because their school was shut down for dismal performance. These teachers remain on the city's payroll at full salary as part of the Absent Teacher Reserve Pool, an arrangement that costs New York City taxpayers roughly $100 million annually — more than three times the amount "rubber room" teachers were getting at the time the Bloomberg/UFT agreement was signed last April.

Former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein pressed for the power to regulate how long laid off teachers could collect their full salaries while waiting in the Absent Teacher Reserve Pool for a new job, but state legislators would not back him. Thus another policy of paying New York City teachers not to work remains in place. Stephen Sawchuk, writing for Education Week's blog "Teacher Beat," summed up the Bloomberg/UFT agreement: "In agreeing to assign these teachers to other work, the United Federation of Teachers and the district essentially bypassed the larger philosophical question: Should teachers awaiting a dismissal hearing have their pay suspended pending an outcome?"

Sawchuk might also have asked: What is the point of laying off teachers to make up budget shortfalls or to close a failing school when they continue to receive full salaries indefinitely? (New York Times, 12-7-10, 4-15-10; New York Post, 12-26-10; blogs.edweek.org, 9-10-10)


 
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