Last spring, the city and the teachers union agreed to close the infamous “rubber rooms.” These were the offices where teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence got their full salaries while doing nothing for months -- even years -- on end, while waiting for disciplinary hearings. The rubber room teachers were supposed to have been assigned to work in Department of Education offices this fall. But a few teachers claim it’s not what they expected.
In the spring of 2008, a high school teacher we’ll call "Marie" says she was accused of insubordination and lateness by her principal. She was then sent to a rubber room in Upper Manhattan where she sat at a desk all day, surrounded by other teachers and school administrators, all waiting for disciplinary hearings.
Marie doesn’t want to reveal her real name because she’s deeply embarrassed. She also doesn’t want to jeopardize her settlement. Over the summer, she attended a mediation conference and ultimately agreed to pay an $8,000 fine.
"My lawyer suggested that this would be right way to approach the situation," she explains. "That a hearing wouldn’t lead me in any other direction, maybe I would be suspended instead of having to pay the fine."
Marie says her settlement allows her to eventually return to teaching. But until she can find a position, she comes to work each day and sits. Not in a rubber room. Instead, she says she’s at an office at the Department of Education’s headquarters on Chambers Street.
"I am sitting around waiting for a task, which will most probably be filing or data input," she says. "And I would like to explain that I’m a math teacher and my services could be used elsewhere."
Marie’s situation appears to be atypical. There are rubber room teachers who have been assigned to office jobs. In fact, WNYC visited an office where the secretary said teachers are doing clerical work. And two teachers have told WNYC they’re now measuring classrooms for the School Construction Authority. Although "it sucks," said one, who says he spends his days driving to different schools. "I'd rather be in a rubber room. At least I knew what was doing every day." He declined to give his name because he's worried about going public, and told us to call him "Dominican Dandy."
But we spoke to another teacher who claims he’s still waiting for work. "Charlie," as we'll call him, told us he’s in the very same building in Queens where he used to sit in a rubber room. Only this time he’s on a different floor. "You know we’re just like the -- for no better use of the word -- the forgotten people," he says with a sigh.
Charlie also doesn’t want to reveal his name for fear of jeopardizing his settlement. He agreed to retire next year so he has to stay in the reassignment center until then. He claims several teachers in his Queens office are working. But he says he and two others were still waiting for assignments late last week.
The deal between the city and the union to get rid of the rubber rooms and put teachers to work was supposed to be a win-win for everyone when Mayor Bloomberg announced it in April. He said rubber room teachers were costing the city $30 million a year.
"Not only do they collect full pay, their pensions also continue to grow for every year that they are in the rubber room," the mayor explains. "It’s an absurd and expensive abuse of tenure, especially at a time when the steep budget cuts that might force us to layoff good teachers stare us in the face."
The Department of Education says it’s complied with the agreement to place teachers in back offices where they could work for their salaries. A spokeswoman says those awaiting charges and hearings last spring were all sent to district offices this month. But it’s up to those individual offices to find them work.
Meanwhile, the department and the union say they’re fulfilling the second part of their agreement: to reduce the backlog of cases. More lawyers and arbitrators were hired to speed things along. The department says about 700 teachers and other staffers were in rubber rooms last spring. Of those, there are now 440 teachers in the new reassignment centers. And they must have their disciplinary hearings completed by the end of December.
The hearings are held in 51 Chambers Street, the grand old Emigrant Savings Bank building across the street from the Department of Education. Betsy Combier used to monitor rubber room cases when she worked for the United Federation of Teachers, before the city and the union agreed to end the rubber rooms. But she still calls herself a teachers’ advocate and she spends her days walking through the building, meeting with teachers. She worries they’re not getting real due process.
"They’re trying to rush the hearings through because all the cases have to be ended by December 31st" she claims. A lawyer in private practice who represents several rubber room teachers, Nicholas Penkovsky, says the hearing rooms are much busier now and that the arbitrators seem less patient.
WNYC observed a recent hearing where Penkovsky represented a teacher accused of verbally threatening a pupil. Penkovsky cross-examined an investigator who interviewed two student witnesses. He focused on what he said was a discrepancy in their accounts: one student said the confrontation took place outside a "United Postal Service office" and another said it was outside a "post office." The Department of Education lawyer frequently objected to Penkovsky's questions and the arbitrator sometimes took her side. City officials have complained that attorneys representing teachers accused of misconduct are far too vigorous in defending their clients and contribute to the lengthy hearing process. But Penkovsky says he's trying to give them the best defense. "Their lives are at stake," he says. "Most of them are older people all over 50, so far, and what else are they going to do?"
The two teachers who spoke to WNYC about their settlements -- "Marie" and "Charlie" -- said they each felt some pressure to settle their cases. But they also said the outcomes were probably the best they could get and they didn't blame their union-appointed attorneys. Claude Hersh, assistant general counsel for New York State United Teachers, provides the teachers with lawyers. He says they’re all getting fair representation. But he suggests they might be nervous, and prone to complaints now, because their hearings are finally happening within the 60 day time limit -- unlike the old days, when they stretched out for much longer.
"We’ve gotten rid of a huge number of the backlog in the last few months," Hersh says. "Some people are actually very stressed because they realize their cases are now going to be heard soon."
In August, Hersh says there were 90 former rubber room teachers awaiting hearings; now he says there are less than 60. As those numbers dwindle, the remaining teachers will have to decide whether to settle or fight the charges before the end of December. And next year, the goal is to keep things moving so those facing charges in the future will be assigned to jobs and never ever again sit in a rubber room.