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: