Despite Promises, New York City ‘Rubber Room’ Persist

Even though the New York City Department of Education has promised to shut down the so-called “rubber rooms” – centers that hold teachers removed from a school while their disciplinary cases are decided – the New York Daily News is reporting that the department hasn’t followed through. This year, the city will spend $22 million on salaries for teachers who aren’t teaching, as the district reviews that are supposed to decide their ultimate fate drag on for yet another year.

In 2010, city officials and union leaders announced that they reached an agreement to shut down rubber rooms. At that time, the city was paying the salaries of over 800 teachers who had been out of classrooms for years. Two years on, it seems that the prediction that rubber rooms would be shut down immediately was overly optimistic. While the number of rubber-roomed teachers has fallen to just over 200, far from shutting down the system, the agreement has simply morphed it.

Now it is the schools themselves who are playing host to holding pens, located in unused offices, maintenance closets or even old locker rooms, where teachers spend their days awaiting resolution on disciplinary matters.

“You start to go a little crazy,” said former Bronx middle school teacher Michael Portnoy, 43, who earned more than $78,000 for sitting in a dark, unused girls’ locker room for 13 months until being fired last spring over what he said was an argument with his principal.

Portnoy, who is appealing his firing from Middle School 142, began each day by getting a few hours’ sleep in a beach chair while mice scurried past him on the concrete floor, he said. He battled boredom by sticking a miniature batting cage to a peeling wall and taught himself how to pitch a softball.
“You ever see anyone in solitary confinement? It was awful,” said Portnoy, who taught in city schools for 14 years. “I wouldn’t go back there for anything.”

Going back about ten years prior to the 2010 reform efforts, teachers who were removed from their duties typically waited up to 2 years for a final decision on their job — all while collecting full salary and benefits. Mayor Michael Bloomberg called it “an absurd and expensive abuse of tenure.” In the words of union president Michael Mulgrew, the 2010 overhaul would speed up the hearing process and would put an end to a years-long wait for a verdict.

Since then, some progress has been made, but if the goal was to get rid of rubber-room-type facilities altogether, then the reform was a failure. Hundreds of teachers sprinkled all over the five boroughs continue to wait for months while performing occasional menial tasks. District officials believe there won’t be much done to change this.

Education officials claim that since no more than about a dozen mothballed instructors are holed up at any one address, the rubber rooms no longer exist.

“For some teachers, while that clock is ticking, they shouldn’t be in the classroom,” said city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. “That’s nothing to be fixed, that’s part of an agreement.”