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NYC teacher discipline model praised, but Walcott seeks change

The city needs changes in state law to speed and ease teacher firing procedures, Chancellor Dennis Walcott told members of the State Senate in Albany today. He asked legislators to change who judges teacher discipline cases and also the legal standard those cases must meet.

Yet the city’s rules are actually the toughest in the state and in many ways are a model for reform, state and union officials told the senators during a hearing on the state’s 3020-a process, the legal process that governs the discipline of tenured teachers. Districts that want to terminate a tenured teacher must prove their case in a 3020-a hearing.

The hearings process has long been seen as unnecessarily time-consuming and expensive. Statewide, cases routinely take as long as two years to be resolved and some principals choose not to bring cases against teachers rather than have to take on the long and burdensome 3020-a process, senators said.

“I really haven’t met anyone who thinks it’s going swimmingly,” said State Sen. John Flanagan, who convened the hearing.

Until recently, New York City was a case study for how 3020-a hearings could drag on. By last summer, the city was paying more than 700 teachers under investigation to report each day to “rubber rooms.” But after Mayor Bloomberg turned his attention to the rubber rooms, the city and teachers union reached an agreement to close them by speeding up the hearing schedule, paying neutral arbitrators to work more days, and rotating cases randomly among the arbitrators.

The backlog was cleared of all but 16 cases in just four months, by the end of 2010, and the accelerated timeline remains in place.

Valerie Grey, the State Education Department’s chief operating officer, cited New York City’s experience to prove that the timeline set forth in the current 3020-a regulations, which suggests five months from when a teacher is charged to when his or her case is resolved, is reasonable.

“New York City did it in four months,” Grey said. “It can be done.”

But Walcott said today that additional changes would streamline the hearing process further. “Even with that resolution 3020-a remains a cumbersome process,” he said. “We need a system that is fair, cost-effective, speedy, and the results are consistent.”

Describing two teachers who faced similar charges but received different penalties after two different arbitrators heard their cases, Walcott focused his proposals for change on a desire for more consistent outcomes of teacher discipline trials. The best way to improve consistency, he said, would be for the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings to take over 3020-a hearings from the independent arbitrators. OATH currently decides disciplinary cases against employees of other city departments, as well as MTA employees. With a salaried, full-time set of lawyers judging teacher discipline cases, costs would be contained and a uniform standard for judgement could be applied, Walcott said.

City officials have long pushed OATH in discussions with the union, United Federation of Teachers spokesman Dick Riley said. A DOE spokeswoman, Barbara Morgan, declined to comment, saying that negotiations with the union are confidential.

The union will not accept using OATH officers instead of impartial hearing offers, testified Carol Gerstel, the UFT’s chief counsel.

“We don’t think that hearing officers who are employees of the City of New York are ones that our members would feel comfortable that they were getting an impartial decision,” she said. “We think that a fair and expeditious process can be had using impartial arbitrators — hearing officers — as we are doing in the city right now.”

Walcott also asked lawmakers to change the law so that instead of the city having to prove it has “just cause” to remove a teacher, teachers would have to prove that their discipline was “arbitrary and capricious.” The city included this change in a list of contract demands that was leaked last year.

“He would get consistent decisions, because everybody would get terminated because the people who are bringing the charges will be upheld unless they are arbitrary and capricious — a very difficult standard to reach,” Gerstel said.

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