New York Sues Teachers' Union Over Deal on Disciplinary Hear ings
New York Sues Teachers’ Union Over Deal on Disciplinary Hearings
By AL BAKER
Published: September 27, 2013
Three years ago, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and New York City’s teachers’ union celebrated an agreement to end the use of “rubber rooms,” the much-ridiculed holding pens where teachers accused of wrongdoing or incompetence would report for years on end, doing no work but drawing full salaries.
But on Friday, in a sign of just how poisoned his relationship with the union has become, Mr. Bloomberg used his radio show to announce that his administration had filed a lawsuit against the union, accusing it of shirking its part of the deal.
The 2010 agreement, which followed months of news articles that embarrassed the city and the union, closed down the rubber rooms and was to speed up the hearing process so teachers’ fates could be decided in a matter of months. But the lawsuit says the union, the United Federation of Teachers, has been dragging its feet in helping select arbitrators to hear the cases.
“They just keep delaying,” Mr. Bloomberg said to the radio program’s host, John Gambling.
“The backlog keeps getting bigger,” the mayor added. “And it just prevents having a fair hearing for teachers who should be cleared of any charges. It allows teachers who should not be in front of our kids through incompetence or inappropriate conduct to continue collecting a paycheck. The public is paying for all this.”
By the latest count, according to the lawsuit that was lodged on Friday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, there is a backlog of roughly 400 teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings, as well as 150 new cases since school began three weeks ago. Combined, that is about as many teachers as were in rubber rooms at the time of the 2010 deal. The union, meanwhile, said on Friday that the true backlog was only 52 teachers.
The rubber rooms have largely been done away with, with teachers now given administrative functions or non-classroom duties while their cases are pending, though some have complained of make-work assignments barely better than no work at all. The part of the agreement now in dispute regards the hiring of arbitrators. To speed up the hearing process, the two sides would agree on a panel of 39 arbitrators, up from 23, but the city now says the union has been too slow to approve arbitrators’ names. In the 2011-12 school year, the two sides seated just 24 arbitrators, and last year 20, the suit said.
In a letter to the schools chancellor this month, Michael Mulgrew, president of the union, laid the blame on the city, saying the process of selecting arbitrators “would be expedited” if school officials proposed better candidates. He also said that fewer arbitrators would be needed if the city processed the cases more efficiently, and that the shortage would not be as bad had several arbitrators not left because the state had not paid them.
Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Department, acknowledged on Friday that the state was behind in payments, because of budgetary issues. “We have a set amount that we can spend,” Mr. Dunn said.
Going forward, Mr. Dunn said, the process for paying arbitrators will be “much smoother and better functioning than it had been.”
The relationship between the Bloomberg administration and the teachers’ union has taken on a more vitriolic tenor of late, with both sides describing hearing notes of personal acrimony creeping in between Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Mulgrew. The two clashed fiercely in January when their attempts to negotiate a new teacher evaluation system fell apart at the last minute. The city’s teachers have been without a labor contract since 2009, and like other labor leaders, Mr. Mulgrew appears to be hoping the next mayor is friendlier to municipal unions.
“It’s a shame the mayor is wasting public resources on this frivolous lawsuit,” Mr. Mulgrew said in a statement, “but we can all take comfort from the fact that Bloomberg will soon be only a bad memory to the people who care about schools.”
Jake Goldman, a mayoral spokesman, said: “This is not about politics. This is about who is standing up for New York City schoolchildren. We are going to keep doing, for the next 95 days, everything we can to continue to make these schools better and this is one of the ways we’re doing that.”
Kate Taylor contributed reporting
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