A close-up look at NYC education policy, politics,and the people who have been, are now, or will be affected by these actions and programs. ATR CONNECT assists individuals who suddenly find themselves in the ATR ("Absent Teacher Reserve") pool and are the "new" rubber roomers, people who have been re-assigned from their life and career. A "Rubber Room" is not a place, but a process.
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 email@example.com