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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Rubber Rooms Still Exist, Folks

Troubled city teachers still bouncing around the supposedly shutdown 'rubber rooms' as city wastes $22 million a year

One $78G-a-year teacher practiced softball pitches while in ‘solitary’ at unused locker room and another instructor tallied chairs as disciplinary cases dragged

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 Highland Mills, NY - October 13, 2012

Norman Y. Lono for New York Daily News

Ex-teacher Michael Portnoy says he was forced to spend 13 months in an unused locker room after a dispute with his principal and worked on softball skills to ward off boredom.

How The News covered story of city closing down rubber rooms in April 2010.

Educators accused of breaking rules, abusing kids — or simply failing to provide students with a decent education — will be paid a stunning $22 million by the city this year for doing absolutely nothing.
More than two years have passed since city officials and the teachers union announced with great fanfare that they’d found a way to shut down the infamous “rubber rooms” where as many as 800 teachers languished — sometimes for years — awaiting disciplinary hearings.
Since then, the number of teachers collecting a salary to twiddle their thumbs while their disciplinary cases plod through the system has dropped dramatically to just over 200 teachers, but a new kind of rubber room has emerged in its place.


So-called 'rubber room' in Ozone Park, Queens, was supposed to be a relic of the past, but such dumping grounds for problem teachers are still scattered around the city, News probe has found.

It lives now in broom closets, unused offices — even stinky locker rooms — in school buildings all over the city.
“You start to go a little crazy,” said former Bronx middle school teacher Michael Portnoy, 43, who earned more than $78,000 for sitting in a dark, unused girls’ locker room for 13 months until being fired last spring over what he said was an argument with his principal.
Portnoy, who is appealing his firing from Middle School 142, began each day by getting a few hours’ sleep in a beach chair while mice scurried past him on the concrete floor, he said.
He battled boredom by sticking a miniature batting cage to a peeling wall and taught himself how to pitch a softball.
“You ever see anyone in solitary confinement? It was awful,” said Portnoy, who taught in city schools for 14 years. “I wouldn’t go back there for anything.”
Officially called “reassignment centers,” rubber rooms have been around for years, populated by teachers who face disciplinary charges but are allowed to remain on the payroll by a union contract that gives them the right to a hearing before they can be fired.
Before the major rubber room reform in 2010, teachers routinely waited two years for a hearing as massive administrative holding pens overflowed with increasingly disgruntled teachers who read books, taught themselves to knit and led yoga classes at taxpayer expense.
Dating back about a decade since the city overhauled its disciplinary process for firing teachers, they came to be called “rubber rooms” because inmates said they went crazy bouncing off the walls.
“This was an absurd and expensive abuse of tenure,” Mayor Bloomberg said when he announced the new reforms in April 2010. “We’ve been able to solve what was one of the most divisive issues in our school system.”
At the time, teachers union boss Michael Mulgrew crowed that the new agreement would shepherd in a “faster and fairer process.”
And the process has improved.
A flood of new arbitrators slashed the waiting time for a hearing from two years to three to six months, and the number of teachers in purgatory dropped significantly.
The total population fluctuates from one day to the next, but on an average day, there are roughly 200 teachers in limbo, officials say — a tiny portion of more than 75,000 teachers on the payroll.
Last week, the tally of rubber-roomed teachers reached 218.
Their salaries and benefits alone will cost taxpayers $22 million this year, but that’s only some of the cost. The city is shelling out thousands more to pay substitute teachers to cover their classrooms.
But while the big reforms announced in 2010 were supposed to put an end to idle teachers doing nothing, today’s rubber room residents say they’re as unproductive as ever.
Bloomberg said they would be given work to do such as answering phones or planning curriculum — anything that didn’t involve working with children — but several teachers say they’ve mostly just stewed.
“It’s boredom — a cruel and unusual punishment,” said Francesco Portelos, who made headlines this month for broadcasting a live Web video of himself surfing the Internet from a rubber room.

Anthony DelMundo for New York Daily News

Teacher Francesco Portelos blogged and produced live Web video of himself surfing the Net while spending five months in limbo in 'rubber rooms' in Queens.

A science instructor from Staten Island’s Intermediate School 49, Portelos has been kept in rubber rooms for more than five months for allegedly hacking into his school’s website, conducting a real estate business during class time, and tampering with the investigations into his allegedly improper activities.
For the first two months, Portelos was stuck in the bleak basement copy room of an Ozone Park, Queens, office building, where he whiled away the hours by boning up on labor law and blogging about his case.
Education officials then moved him to an empty conference room in the same building, where he broadcast hours of video showing him pecking away at his laptop.
After the city learned of his webcam, Portelos was told to shut it down and work on lesson plans for his classes.
He continues to draw his yearly salary of $75,000.
Former Brooklyn teacher Christine Rubino said she was assigned to an empty cubicle in an administration building for five months and once was told to count all the chairs in the six-story building.
“There were 800 of them,” Rubino said. “They told me they needed to know how many, in case there was a meeting . . . . It was the only job they gave me that month.”
After Rubino tallied all the chairs in the dingy downtown Brooklyn building, she returned to her desk, where she collected her $75,000 salary and surfed the Internet while awaiting the outcome of her case.
The elementary school teacher at Brooklyn’s Public School 203 was fired after making a joke about drowning her students on Facebook.
In June 2010, a day after a 12-year-old Harlem girl drowned on a school trip to a Long Island beach, Rubino ranted online: “After today, I am thinking the beach sounds like a wonderful idea for my 5th graders! I HATE THEIR GUTS!”
She was fired a year later but successfully sued to get her job back. The city has appealed the verdict that went her way in February, so she remains unemployed while her case makes its way through the courts.
Education officials claim that since no more than about a dozen mothballed instructors are holed up at any one address, the rubber rooms no longer exist.
“For some teachers, while that clock is ticking, they shouldn’t be in the classroom,” said city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. “That’s nothing to be fixed, that’s part of an agreement.”
Mulgrew wouldn’t comment on individual teachers who said they weren’t given work to do in rubber rooms, but said the current system is better than the one it replaced.
“The system has been working much better than anything we have had before,” Mulgrew said. “We did not want a system where people were sitting there. We wanted a fast and fair system.”
The union has not yet formally objected to conditions in the new “solitary confinement” rubber rooms.
“We signed this agreement in good faith with the city and we expect them to follow it. Fast and fair is all we ask,” he said.
With Corinne Lestch