Out of the Rubber Room, into the Pyre
By Philip Nobile
The ballyhooed rubber room agreement between the city and the teachers union proves the adage: For every advantage, there is a disadvantage.
Surely, abolition was the only way to go. Wasted millions, wasted labor, wasted careers. The heat was too much. The overpopulated rooms and trailers were a fiasco overdue for oblivion.
But what appears to be a win-win for the DOE and UFT may be a loss for hundreds of teachers, counselors, psychologists, nurses, social workers and secretaries now banished to Orwellian-named Temporary Reassignment Centers waiting for their hearings.
There is no guarantee that emancipation won’t evolve into Jim Crow, a change of venue without a change of policy and punishment.
Despite the apocalyptic publicity in the tabloids, TRCs were never the real issue. Rather they are the rear end product of the DOE’s discipline system that can reassign a ham sandwich.
Under Chancellor Joel Klein, every teacher was and is a secret misconduct complaint away from sudden job removal followed by a one-sided investigation topped off with prosecution by a bulldog city attorney whose purpose in life is to maul union members. The
agreement merely accelerates these procedures.
Last May the UFT Delegates Assembly condemned the Chancellor’s Ministry of Fear in a resolution accusing the Office of Special Investigations of making inquiries “in a biased manner” and principals of “target[ing] members who show independence or otherwise are perceived as threats to authority.”
True enough, but the resolution was ignored in practice. The UFT has done nothing in the past year to stop the DOE from railroading troublesome teachers. Special UFT Representatives sit in on OSI interviews, but say little and advise clients to keep quiet lest investigators twist their statements. Whatever notes the reps take, even if they include exculpatory material, are withheld from teachers until their hearings. The union’s lack of advocacy in the crucial early stages of investigation has left teachers at the mercy of OSI, not to be confused with the ACLU.
While heavy on deliberate speed and strict deadlines, the purported breakthrough agreement is light on protecting teachers from the frame-ups that flooded TRCs in the first place. For every bona fide oddball, and I’ve met some beauts in my room, there are ten model educators guilty only of having a hostile supervisor who inflated or invented an incident to justify reassignment rubber stamped by OSI. Since the Chancellor’s Javerts remain unmentioned and unchecked in the agreement, the UFT’s passivity seems like a sellout.
The agreement has other serious flaws, all stemming from UFT President Michael Mulgrew’s failure to consult with us, the least of his members, the casualties of this bureaucratic Bay of Pigs.
The UFT’s contract negotiating committee has three hundred members providing diverse input. In contrast, the rubber room pact was completed in total secrecy without consenting intercourse with the people directly affected. A survey of three TRCs in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, where I resided without charges for my first thirty-three months, revealed deep skepticism about the agreement. Asked whether they were happy or unhappy with it, 140 said unhappy and 50 happy. Asked further whether they wanted to meet with Mr. Mulgrew, who has not set foot in a TRC, and discuss the agreement, the response was almost unanimously affirmative.
Here are some of the queries that Mr. Mulgrew needs to answer:
¶ Will you meet with current rubber roommates and seek to renegotiate terms deemed unfair by them?
¶ Do you concur with Brooklyn Borough Representative Howie Schoor’s claim that “most” members have been reassigned “on trumped up charges?” If so, how did the union let this happen?
¶ To guarantee fairness in the future, will you insist that the UFT have the right to conduct inquiries parallel to the DOE’s, assuring equal access to evidence and witnesses before being charged. And will you reverse UFT policy by ordering Special Representatives to vigorously defend members during OSI and OEO interviews and to give copies of interview notes to members?
¶ Why did you grant the DOE 60 days to investigate and charge members with misconduct after reassignment (in addition to unlimited time limit before), but consented to restricted us to just 25 days to prepare our defense (match up with a union lawyer, discover evidence, line up witnesses, etc.) before the hearings begin?
¶ Why hasn’t the UFT demanded that administrators be penalized
for false accusations?
¶ As for misconduct hearings, how can due process be secured
when unprecedented deadlines now govern every step of the way
and all favoring of management? Don’t you think that the Chancellor’s and your joint meeting with hearing officers to pressure them on deadlines can be construed as interference with the legal process?
Philip Nobile was a Social Studies teacher and UFT Chapter Leader
at the Cobble Hill School of American Studies. He was reassigned
to a Brooklyn rubber room in 2007 in retaliation, he says, for blowing
the whistle on Regents cheating.