arbitration arbitration

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:

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”