RIP rubber rooms

End of rubber rooms a "big deal," but bigger issues remain

When he announced that he would close the city’s infamous rubber rooms yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared, “To say that this is a big deal is an understatement.”

The agreement will shutter the reassignment centers where teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence wait idly for their cases to be heard, a process both the city and union have accused each other of dragging on interminably. But the deal, which was struck outside of formal contract negotiations, does little to resolve the most contentious issues the city and union have long fought over.

Yesterday’s rubber room agreement traded one largely-ignored time-line for hearing cases for a speedier one. Union and city officials pledged to strictly adhere to the faster schedule and clear out the backlog of cases by the end of the year.

“We want a faster, fairer process,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said. “That’s the way this process should work and that’s what this agreement does.”

The deal does little to make it easier to fire teachers for incompetence, a major goal of the Bloomberg administration that the union bitterly opposes.  Nor does it address a costlier problem: the pool of teachers who remain on the city’s payroll after losing their positions to school budget cuts or school closings.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Bloomberg said the delay in reforming the expensive process lay mostly in a lack of political will to change.

“Over the years nobody paid attention to the cost of delay,” Bloomberg said, arguing that much of the arbitration work that has taken years in some cases under the current system could actually have been done in weeks.

“There’s never been any pressure to do so,” he said. “We can’t afford to do that anymore.”

City officials said that they expect the faster arbitration schedule to significantly reduce the $30 million a year they say is currently spent paying teachers to sit and do nothing while they wait for their cases to be heard.

“I think over time we should be able to recapture a significant sum of that and put it back in the classroom,” Chancellor Joel Klein said.

But any savings from the new process likely will not materialize for months, as the city ramps up its short-term efforts to clear the backlog of nearly 650 cases, which city and union officials today pledged to resolve by December.

“The big issue is going to be myself and the chancellor going before the arbitration board and explaining what the expectations are,” Mulgrew said. “I don’t think that’s ever been done before.”

To speed up the hearing process, the city plans to increase the number of arbitrators who hear teachers’ cases from 23 to 39, and to increase the number of days per month arbitrators hear cases from five to seven. The city is accordingly also planning to hire more lawyers and investigators who handle cases of teacher misconduct and incompetence, city officials said. Union officials said they would push for more cases to be settled rather than go through hearings, which would speed up the process even more.

Under the new process, the city will have 60 days after removing a teacher from the classroom to bring charges of misconduct and 10 days to charge a teacher with incompetence. If the DOE fails to bring charges during that time, the teacher will automatically return to the classroom. This is a major change from the previous system, under which the city’s six month deadline to issue charges was sometimes ignored.  Some teachers sat in reassignment centers for months or even years without charges.

City officials are also hoping to shorten the time between when charges are filed and when teachers’ hearings begin. Under the new system, hearings must start two weeks after teachers request them. Most teachers are now supposed to have 10 to 14 hearing days over the next two months, and arbitrators will now be expected to hand down a decision within a month of the final hearing. Extensions to this period under “extraordinary circumstances” are legally allowed, but yesterday’s agreement instructs hearing officers to make extensions “the exception and not the rule.”

The deal calls for the small minority of teachers charged with non-fireable offenses to go through an even faster process of a 3-day hearing.

The mayor dodged a question about whether the rubber room announcement will have any effect on the city’s stalled teachers contract negotiations with the union, which formally entered the mediation process on Wednesday. The city’s negotiation wishlist includes a demand that teachers who have been charged and are awaiting a trial be removed from the city’s payroll until they’re found innocent. It’s unclear if the city intends to pursue its demands for more flexibility in firing as it enters the mediation stage.

Here is the official text of the agreement that Klein and Mulgrew signed yesterday:

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”