NYC Teachers Released from ‘Rubber Rooms’, Required to Work

Published October 13, 2010

New York City has reassigned teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence from its notorious “rubber rooms” to clerical work, food preparation, or other nonteaching duties while they continue to await disciplinary hearings. Approximately 440 teachers returned to work in schools but outside classrooms when school resumed in September.

The previous contract with New York’s United Federation of Teachers allowed as many as 700 teachers to languish for years earning full pay by playing cards, staring out windows, even running businesses while spending eight-hour days in bare rooms. The idle teachers cost the city approximately $30 million a year, according to the New York City Department of Education.

An agreement reached in April between the city and the UFT dissolved the widely lampooned arrangement. Sixteen new arbitrators are working to work to close their cases by the end of the year, said Ann Forte, an education department spokeswoman.

A total of 39 arbitrators will work seven days a week implementing new, 10- to 60-day deadlines for disciplining teachers. The city has hired more arbitrators to hear expedited, three-day cases in which the school is not seeking to fire the teacher but lower his or her salary, Forte said.

‘Job for Life’
Masses of contractual red tape led to New York’s rubber rooms, said Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, a grassroots advocacy group that provides teachers with information about alternatives to unionization.

“Unions prefer lengthy discipline processes to make sure that principals don’t get rid of teachers, because once a teacher has tenure you essentially have a job for life, and once you pass that threshold most principals don’t bother to try,” Sand said. “That sends a message: Don’t even try, because it will cost millions of dollars and eons of time and make everyone miserable.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools Chancellor Joel Klein have not simply shuffled the detainees; they’re attempting to stanch their source by tying teacher tenure to student performance rather than mere seniority, Sand said.

Teachers formerly earned tenure after three years on the job, and were denied it in only 1 percent of cases. Last year that figure rose to 11 percent. Teachers must now improve student performance two years in a row to receive tenure under a new agreement Bloomberg announced September 27.

‘$100,049 to Make Photocopies’
Though New York City teachers make about $60,000 a year on average, they can easily take home much more. One reassigned teacher, Hal Lanse, told the New York Post, “They’ll be paying me $100,049 to be making photocopies.” He’s at the top of the pay scale.

“I don’t know that it has seeped into the public’s consciousness yet that in order to support good teachers and good public education we have to get rid of bad teachers,” said Sarah Longwell, a spokeswoman for the Center for Union Facts.

A September study by the American Enterprise Institute named New York City one of the country’s top five cities for reform because Bloomberg and Klein’s “multifaceted efforts have transformed a district culture once lampooned for its bureaucratic inertia.”

Joy Pavelski ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.