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Lawsuit alleges union is breaking promises in 'rubber room' deal

A “big deal” forged to shutter the city’s infamous rubber rooms more than three years ago is getting dragged down by the city teachers union, the city charges in a lawsuit filed today.

Department of Education lawyers say the United Federation of Teachers has failed to hold up a key part of the agreement, which was struck with joint praise from Mayor Bloomberg and union President Michael Mulgrew in April 2010 to speed up the disciplinary process for teachers whom the city wants to fire. At the time, the city estimated it was spending $30 million a year to pay 550 teachers who were removed from the classroom and who languished — sometimes for years — in reassignment centers known as “rubber rooms” while they awaited a hearing.

A major element of the deal was to increase the pool of mutually acceptable arbitrators — from 23 to 39 — who rule on cases against teachers charged with incompetence or misconduct. But three years after the reforms were scheduled to take place, that number has actually fallen to 19 — while the number of teachers facing trials stands at over 400.

The lawsuit alleges that the UFT has repeatedly balked at approving enough arbitrators to hit the new target. Last month, the union agreed to invite just 14 arbitrators, and the selection process stalled entirely this month.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew has argued that the union cannot agree to the arbitrators whom the city proposes. In a letter to Chancellor Dennnis Walcott earlier this week, Mulgrew said the selection process would be faster “if the DOE would propose more qualified candidates.”

The arbitrator pool has also shrunk because the state does not always pay arbitrators for their work in a timely fashion. The State Education Department, which is responsible for the payments, recently reported a $2 million deficit in the “Tenured Teacher Hearing” fund, which is used to pay arbitrators in disciplinary cases.

A group of arbitrators are suing the state over the payments, including one who’s owed $200,000 in backpay. “The reason many of the very senior arbitrators [sic] no longer do these cases is the state would not pay us based on the work that we had done,” former arbitrator Arthur Riegel told WNYC.

Perhaps as a result, few people have wanted to take the job when it is offered. Just eight of the 14 arbitrators offered the position in August accepted.

“Many arbitrators are reluctant to work with the DOE,” UFT spokesman Dick Riley said today.

As a result, the speed of the disciplinary process appears to have barely budged since 2010.The department reported in its lawsuit that there are currently more than 400 teachers who require discipline hearings with the 19 arbitrators, and lawyers said they expect another 150 cases in the near future.

The city said it is spending $8 million a year to pay teachers who have been removed from the classroom while they await arbitration.

Riley said the current pool of arbitrators would be “enough” if the department would consider using a less aggressive legal process called mediation. In that process, the teacher and the city first try to reach a settlement at a pretrial hearing to avoid starting arbitration. Union lawyers said that of 55 cases that went through this process this summer, 39 reached settlement without arbitration. In some cases, teachers agreed to resign or retire, while in others teachers accepted suspensions before returning to the classroom, union officials said.

“If the DOE was truly interested in in resolving cases efficiently, it would agree to our proposal to keep this process in place permanently,” Mulgrew wrote to Walcott this week.

The city’s complete lawsuit is below:

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