Monday, October 15, 2007

UFT Asserts It May Sue City

Discipline of Teachers in 'Rubber Rooms' Angers Weingarten
[Commentary on this article can be found at Ednotesonline]

Staff Reporter of the Sun
October 15, 2007

On an issue that is testing President Randi Weingarten's public d├ętente with the city, a new group within the United Federation of Teachers is arguing that the union take a tough stance on the treatment of teachers who have been disciplined.

The group, which has dubbed itself the Teacher Reassignment Center SWAT Team, has been compiling pages of documentation on the so-called rubber rooms where teachers accused of charges ranging from incompetence to sexual assault are held as they await a hearing. More than 700 teachers now sit in rubber rooms, where they receive full pay but cannot enter a classroom, a Department of Education spokeswoman, Melody Meyer, said.

Ms. Weingarten said yesterday she hopes the investigation will end with a deal between the union and the city, and not in the courtroom. The result, she said, will hinge on how the Department of Education responds to new guidelines she plans to send in a letter next week. "If we make a proposal and the Board of Education says, ‘No, forget about it,' then we have a problem," Ms. Weingarten said.

She called the issue a "test case" for her new cooperative stance with city officials.

A lawsuit is one route if cooperation fails, the head of the investigative group, Betsy Combier, said.

The centers hold teachers accused of misconduct ranging from criminal charges to incompetent teaching. Tenured teachers cannot simply be fired or pushed to leave their jobs because the UFT contract requires that they first receive a hearing. A panel of arbitrators then decides whether the teacher will be fired, fined, or allowed back in the classroom with no discipline.

Just 11 rooms hold the 700-plus teachers whose cases have not yet been resolved. The backlog has left some teachers on the city payroll for as long as two years before a decision is reached. In the meantime, teachers in the rooms pass the time by watching television, reading books, and writing.

A complaint the UFT sent to a deputy chancellor at the Department of Education, Kathleen Grimm, recently noted the crowded rooms' poor conditions, including inadequate toilet facilities and electrical violations such as exposed wiring.

Ms. Combier said her conversations with about 70 teachers so far suggest that a majority in the rubber rooms are also being denied due process rights — that is, they have been taken out of the classroom and placed in a center for as long as two years without any information as to why. "It's a public relations nightmare for the Board of Education," Ms. Combier said. "They will never live this down. I won't let them."

A Department of Education spokesman, David Cantor, said cooperation is a possibility. "We'll work with the UFT whenever we can," he said. "But don't be mistaken. The teachers in the rubber rooms have been accused of serious misconduct and crimes. We will not keep them with kids in schools simply because their contract says they must continue to be paid."

He said there are a few cases in which the city does not tell teachers why they are charged as a way of protecting the investigations against them. He said "virtually all" teachers know why they are in rubber rooms.

Ms. Weingarten's promise to ramp up pressure on the issue of rubber rooms comes as she is facing more pressure to act from inside her union and beyond. Factions have formed within the union to fight on behalf of teachers in rubber rooms, making suggestions ranging from hiring more staff to defend teachers to issuing subpoenas of state agencies on their behalf. One group, the Teacher Advocacy Group, plans to picket the union's Lower Manhattan headquarters Wednesday following a delegate assembly meeting, a retired teacher who is advising the group, Norman Scott, said. The group will carry signs charging that the union has "dropped the ball" on protecting teachers.

An independent filmmaker has also added to the fire with a documentary called "The Rubber Room," which several teachers said has generated interest from such high-profile outlets as Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

Some in the union ridiculed Ms. Weingarten's push for compromise, saying it will not resolve what they described as the UFT's failure to provide teachers in rubber rooms with strong legal representation. "They need people that have some kind of understanding and background in employment investigations. They have nothing," a teacher who was placed in a rubber room and who is also a lawyer, Jeffrey Kaufman, said.

Ms. Weingarten's new team includes Ms. Combier, who said she has previous paralegal experience, and two journalists at the union's newspaper.

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