Staten Island teacher Francesco Portelos has been streaming live video of his stint in a pseudo Department of Education “rubber room” as he awaits a disciplinary hearing for charges dating back to April.
The Staten Island Advance reports Portelos was removed from his position as a computer technology teacher at Berta Dreyfus Intermediate School 49 and reassigned to an office in Ozone Park, Queens. According to Portelos, he was pulled from his post after he accused Dreyfus principal Linda Hill of financial misconduct. No charges have been levied against Hill. In a statement, a DOE spokesperson said Portelos was removed from the classroom because he “has been extremely difficult to work with, was transferred twice, and there are multiple investigations pending against him.”
The DOE’s so-called “rubber rooms” -- where teachers under investigation were sent to do nothing all day while still collecting their salaries -- were supposedly done away with in 2010. Instead, teachers were to be assigned administrative duties.
Some teachers, however, have said that they are not actually being assigned duties while their hearings are pending -- a claim that appears bolstered by Portelos’s live video feed uploaded Thursday.
In the video, Portelos can be seen sitting alone in an empty conference room with his laptop, the day’s papers and a sign proclaiming “I’d rather teach!!” He also has a miniature “Don’t Tread On Me” flag on display.
Portelos has been chronicling the saga on his blog, which includes a link to a Change.org petition to “reinstate Mr. Portelos to the classroom and take him out of the Rubber Room.” It has garnered nearly 700 signatures as of Monday morning.
“It’s just crazy, I never thought this would happen especially in the New York City Department of Education," Portelos told CBS Radio station 1010 WINS. "A $24 billion budget and I’m being paid $75,000 to sit here. It’s ridiculous.
“I’m not here because I’m a bad teacher, I’m not here because I did anything to anyone physically, I’m here because they were trying to shut me up and it backfired big time,” he continued.
Portelos has continued to upload instructional videos to his personal STEM website, and asks students’ parents to email him if they are interested in having their children take online classes.
Portelos' story echoes that of numerous New York teachers, most notably that of Roland Pierre, who by 2010 had been rubber-roomed for 13 years, collecting $100,000 annually in salary and benefits well past the minimum retirement age. He was taken out of the classroom in 1997 after being accused of sexual misconduct with a student, and the city didn't want to reinstate him in a teaching role. The trouble: the city also struggled to fire him.
The city has fought for years to fire teachers accused of various forms of sexual misconduct. Although independent arbitrators found evidence of wrongdoing, they decided that the educators' offenses were not grounds for firing, and instead issued mild penalties like a fine, and sent back to the classroom.
School officials say their hands are tied. Under New York law, tenured teachers have the right to a hearing with an arbitrator before they can be fired, and can appeal an arbitrator's ruling in civil court. While the Department of Education can also appeal an arbitrator's decision to state courts, legal standards for overturning those rulings are very difficult to meet.
On WOR Radio's John Gambling Show in April, Bloomberg quipped of the arbitrators' rulings, "maybe if you were a serial ax murderer, you might get a slap on the wrist." He noted that arbitrators, who are collectively chosen by the city and the teachers' union, might have also been driven toward milder penalties in an effort to keep their jobs.
So in May, Bloomberg proposed a new state law that provides high-ranking, local school officials the ultimate decision on whether school employees involved in sex cases should be terminated.
"There is simply no reason that teachers accused of sexual misconduct should have greater job security than other city employees," the mayor said at the time. "The fact that they currently do is wrong; it is dangerous; it is indefensible."