NYC To Close 'Rubber Rooms' For Teachers In Trouble

 Julianne Polito has been sent repeatedly to the "rubber room" on accusations of corporal punishment. She stands outside the trailers that serve as the rubber rooms in Manhattan.
Julianne Polito has been sent repeatedly to the "rubber room" on accusations of corporal punishment. She stands outside the trailers that serve as the rubber rooms in Manhattan. Beth Fertig for NPR

In a deal with the union, the city has agreed to stop sending suspended teachers to reassignment rooms while their cases are pending. The teachers could sit in the so-called rubber rooms for years and do nothing while still getting paid. The teachers will now be sent to school offices to do administrative work.

New York City and its teachers union agreed this week to shut down so-called "rubber rooms," reassignment centers where hundreds of suspended teachers go each school day instead of the classroom while their cases are pending. The teachers can sit for years and do nothing while still getting paid.

Because the teachers all have tenure, they can't be fired or returned to the classroom until the allegations of misconduct or incompetence have been investigated. The situation had become an embarrassment for the city and the union.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein says starting this fall, suspended teachers will go to school offices where they'll do administrative chores instead of to the rubber rooms. And, he pledges, the investigations and hearings will move faster.

"The whole theory is let's get it done," Klein says. "Those who don't belong in the system should be removed. Those who belong back in the classroom should get back in the classroom."

'No Way Out'

Brandi Scheiner is a former elementary school teacher. She was suspended when her principal accused her of incompetence and spent more than two school years sitting in rubber rooms.

Inside one of the fluorescent-lit rooms, Scheiner looks around and points out the clusters of desks and a bulletin board she decorated. It looks like what you'd see in an elementary school, only it's covered with newspaper clippings instead of vocabulary words.

Scheiner, 57, claims her suspension was really a case of age discrimination. An injured knee has qualified her for disability retirement this year, so she's done with the rubber room and has just come back for a visit.

"You come here and everybody's in the same situation," she says. Teachers who have been in the rubber rooms for a long time help calm down the newcomers, she says.

"Then we start explaining the process. There's no way out."

The Waiting Game

At least 120 teachers are assigned to the 11 trailers that serve as the rubber rooms in Manhattan. There's frustration, anger and even a sense of persecution among the teachers. Many of them claim they were sent to the rooms on trumped-up charges. They also say there are usually 20 people or more assigned to each trailer.

"We kind of routinely sit in the same seats," says Julianne Polito, a former principal who was demoted to teacher.

She's been repeatedly sent to the rubber room on accusations of corporal punishment -- allegations she strongly denies.

The city has never brought charges against her.

She sets up her laptop computer while Dean Henry reads a newspaper at another table.

Henry taught special education at a middle school until September, when he got his third unsatisfactory rating and was accused of incompetence.

"I have yet to be contacted by a lawyer," he says. "So I really don't know when that's going to be. So I'm just sitting here waiting."

There hasn't been a hearing in his case.

"People are under the impression that we're here just lollygagging, just hanging out," he says. "But the process is a very uncomfortable one. And we really don't know how long it's going to take."

The deal struck by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Klein should clear the rubber rooms by the end of December by speeding up the investigation and hearing process. There are currently 550 teachers and another 100 education department staffers sitting in them, at a cost to the city of more than $30 million a year.

Copyright 2010 WNYC Radio.

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