The eight city warehouses called “rubber rooms” were spaces of various sizes where up to 1,500 Department of Education employees at a time got paid their full salaries to sit around — free to read the newspaper, surf the internet, knit, chat or just doze off.
Some got creative. One notorious rubber-room fixture managed his real-estate and rental properties. Another teacher in a Bronx rubber room studied for the LSAT and is now a practicing attorney.
All the “reassigned” employees stayed in these rooms for the entire school day, free to leave only 30 to 45 minutes for lunch.
The fact that millions of public dollars were being spent on holding pens to keep teachers out of classrooms for months or years on end — many even without charges filed against them — became a political nightmare for then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The charging process under mayoral control allows anyone, including parents, other employees and principals, to make accusations against an educator. But no tenured educator can be fired without a hearing, called 3020-a arbitration in state law.
Since 2003 I have worked as an advocate for individuals stuck in rubber rooms while under investigation or awaiting administrative trials, and helped defend them in hearings.
To outsiders, being paid to do nothing might seem an easy gig, but people languishing in the rubber rooms got fed up. They began organizing, demanding to form their own union chapters.
Neither the DOE nor the United Federation of Teachers, their union, wanted to legitimize the rubber roomers in that way. But on April 15, 2010, the UFT and the DOE finally signed an agreement to clear out the visible examples of fiscal absurdity by closing the original rooms and by speeding up the disciplinary hearings.
No one has paid any attention to that agreement, then or now.
New York City hired a roster of arbitrators to hear the cases quickly, but many of the accused fought termination rather than settle, retire or resign, and most wanted witnesses to testify on their behalf. Some hearings are lengthy — one recent case stretched over nine months. The time limits are not enforced.
In one case, a school investigator did not file his report until two years after a student accused the teacher of insulting her. Despite the blatant violation of procedure, which requires a report in six to 12 months, the teacher was nonetheless served charges. The arbitrator dismissed the case before the hearing even started, but the city sued him for doing so. It lost.
The political “solution” was, and still is, to spread out the “held” employees here and there — in district or school offices, basements, storage or copy rooms — anywhere hidden from view. The rubber rooms simply went underground.
The DOE keeps the number of these new rubber roomers a secret. The department benefits from hiding them. The embarrassing news coverage largely stopped — with occasional exceptions — as did public outrage over the waste of public funds. The union benefits because it is spared public ridicule for keeping exiled or “bad” teachers on salary.
But the public, parents and students still lose. When a teacher is yanked from the classroom, who takes his or her place? Typically, a substitute or anyone who is available — and perhaps someone unqualified. Kids are thrown into turmoil and confusion.
The most outrageous part of this hoax is that there is no accountability and no consequences for making false accusations or abusing the process.
New York City needs to refine the charging process so that public money is spent effectively to fire the truly unfit, while supporting the wrongly charged and penalizing administrators who pursue false charges.
We must stop hiding the rubber rooms, now even further underground due to the pandemic, when all educators are at home. The hearings came to a halt in March when the city shut down schools amid the COVID-19 outbreak. A restart date has not been decided.
Give all reassigned teachers relevant work to do in accordance with their licenses while they await their due-process hearings. Better yet, streamline the charging process so that only valid charges substantiated by independent investigators can be heard, and penalties issued expeditiously and fairly.
Betsy Combier is a paralegal who defends educators in disciplinary cases and writes the blog NYC Rubber Room Reporter.
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