Before the New York City Council decided last week to vote in favor of Michael Bloomberg’s plan to extend term limits, attorneys were already challenging the new law in court.
Reports after the Council voted made note of two lawsuits, one filed by members of the Council who opposed the majority and the other, filed on October 22, on behalf of, as the Times concisely put it, “ten public school teachers…contending that changing the law without a referendum breached voters’ civil rights and due-process rights.”
Who are they? Why do they care? And what do they have against the crop of term-limited office holders currently running their city?
These tenured educators sit all day in what they call a "rubber room," and they blame their captivity on Michael Bloomberg.
Kindergarten teacher Brandi Scheiner said she is facing charges of "excessive use of glue" and "poor rug management." Her rubber roommate and co-plaintiff Thomasina Robinson, a high school gym teacher and former teacher of the year, said she is charged with pulling a student's ponytail. Two students will testify that she didn't, she said, if the Department of Education ever sets a hearing date. So far, it's been 22 months.
The complaint names Bloomberg and every member of the City Council as defendants (they are all named in order to "insure that they are all formally on notice"). It charges that in passing the term-limits legislation, Bloomberg and Speaker Christine Quinn used "improper and potentially illegal pressures to intimidate others." The resulting deals with Council members, according to the complaint, were "designed and/or intended to deprive Plaintiffs and other NYC voters of their rights to determine" the issue in a referendum. The plaintiffs are harmed not only as New Yorkers, the complaint charges, but also as people whose due process rights are already being violated by Bloomberg and will continue to be as long as he remains in office. Documents filed so far leave the harm issue at that, but the plaintiffs themselves tell a more colorful story.
"We call it the rubber room because it makes you lose your mind," explained Scheiner. (The Department of Education calls them temporary reassignment centers.) According to Scheiner and Robinson, the rubber room at 333 7th Avenue has no windows; picnic chairs for seats; dirty floors; three toilets for a hundred women; and two security guards at the exit. The teachers sit in their picnic chairs, read, and "get on each others' nerves," in Robinson's words. For a little while she was teaching her colleagues Chi Kung, a Chinese exercise form, but the guards don't let her anymore. "They didn't want us to have any movement," she said.
In an interview last week, Scheiner explained that she had been delighted to learn that she had been asked to report for jury duty. "It's clean here," she said on a call from the courthouse. "Nobody's flipping out!"
"We were very jealous," said Robinson afterward. The rubber room isn't all crossword puzzles and Sudoku, these aggrieved teachers say.
"People are having asthma, all types of pulmonary problems," said Robinson. She said one woman died of pulmonary complications shortly after returning to her rubber room this September. Stress and shame haunt the teachers too. Robinson added that "a lot of people have not told their partners and their family."
Asked whether it was possible to land in the rubber room for excessive use of glue, Department of Education spokesperson Andrew Jacob said he could not comment on individual cases. But he said rubber room residents fall into three categories: teachers accused of corporal punishment, teachers who have been arrested and teachers whose "schools have documented that they are incompetent or ineffective."
The teachers believe that Bloomberg—who runs the Department of Education—encourages trumped-up charges against experienced teachers as part of a larger strategy to replace public education with charter schools.
"It's not about money," said Scheiner.
Teachers earn their full salary while sitting in rubber rooms, though Robinson says she has lost the opportunity to earn "per session" wages for running after school activities. It has been reported that the rubber rooms cost the city $65 million per year.
Jacob, from the education department, said that the purpose of keeping suspect teachers in rubber rooms is "protecting the welfare of the children." If the process is inefficient, he said, it is because of strictures placed on the department by union contracts and state law.
In the teachers' view, a new mayor is their only shot at freedom.
"What do I have to look forward to if I've already sat there for two years and they haven't respected due process?" asked Robinson. If Bloomberg serves a third term, "is he going to respect it then?"
She worries that her career is over. Even if she applies for positions outside of the city, she will have to explain a two-year gap in her resume.
"I can't say I've been in the rubber room," she said, laughing. She mimicked a job interviewer: "What kind of person are you?"
Tales from the rubber room aren't the only drama set to unfold. The teachers' lawyer, Edward Fagan, says he will argue that Bloomberg's pressure tactics in getting council members' votes were illegal. "Arms were twisted, pledges were made, people changed their votes in exchange for some as of yet undetermined reason," said Fagan. "That's out-and-out fraud."
He will ask the Southern District of New York federal court early this week for an order to preserve evidence, which he says includes council staffers' text messages, emails, and faxes. "There were hundreds of people out there shuttling agreements between people. Those documents are evidence," he said.
The teachers' strategy is vastly different from the plaintiff council members', whose arguments against extending term limits in documents filed so far have turned on finer points of administrative law. Fagan said he disagrees with their emphasis on criticizing the council's vote itself rather than the action around the vote.
"The vote is the car," he explained. "When the car drives over you, you sue because you got driven over, not because the car exists."
A spokesperson for the New York City Law Department said the office was "in receipt of the lawsuits and we're in the process of reviewing them."