Government Lies, Corruption and Mismanagement
The Rubber Rooms and the Misinformation of Steven Brill by Betsy Combier
The education of more than 1 million public school children in New York City is a big business. Too big to allow any employee to undermine or sabotage the huge amount of funds generated every year by no bid contracts, scrubbed grades, false test results, and other misinformation that wins big awards. I have attended hearings of Rubber Room teachers for almost 5 years, and visit the Rubber Rooms every week. The article published in the New Yorker magazine article on the Rubber Room written by journalist Steven Brill is a fabricated tale that the NYC BOE will try to market as truth. Dont believe it.
The New York City Board of Education funds the "rubberization" process which removes tenured members of the United Federation of Teachers from their classrooms and jobs and places them in rooms called temporary re-assignment centers, TRCs, or “rubber rooms”. Sometimes members of the Principals’ Union, CSA, also end up in these locations. More often than not these re-assigned teachers and school personnel are not only experienced, but dedicated to protecting the health, education and welfare of the children under their care. Some do disobey rules and the law, and some are, indeed, incompetent. The system should remove these employees from the classroom, especially if there is evidence of misconduct or a crime, and there is subtantial evidence to prove this. But many of these tenured, re-assigned people are removed simply because they notice theft, harm and other wrongdoing in their schools by others, and report the crimes and misconduct to authorities – the Special Commissioner of Investigation, for example. SCI then goes "after" the person for reporting what he or she has seen (do not believe the website). Suddenly the "mandated reporter" becomes the dreaded Whistleblower that no one in power wants around. For this reason, many acts of a criminal nature are pushed under the rug.
When you hear the word “incompetent”, look at the person who is writing or saying it. The word itself is situation specific. For example, if a teacher is tenured and teaches chemistry for 10 years and then the Principal assigns this person to teach high school English literature, most people would say that perhaps this person would be “incompetent” to teach that subject. When you find out that a teacher was placed in a Senior calculus class but actually is certified in teaching global history, you know something is wrong. When you hear that a teacher is “incompetent”, the very next question should be “at what?” Nine times out of ten this person can find a classroom right for him or her and the Principal is assigning the wrong one. Classic sabotage.
The person who is dragged through the door of his or her school is not always guilty of anything other than speaking up about someone else’s crimes. You can tell a person to be quiet and not say anything about school personnel doing something that harms someone else, but this doesnt always work. The thought is so unbelievable that the teacher would be retaliated against for trying to fix a problem that he/she won’t hide what looks like theft of funds, cheating, abuse of a child by the administration, and, as mandated reporters, speak out about it anyway. (What employees should do when they see harm being done to children in the school is call the police, report the abuse to the NYS Mandated Reporting Line: 1-800-635-1522, or call other non-BOE agencies).
Punishment is swift and degrading for the employee who leaks the news that the Principal hurt a child, that an Assistant Principal changed records, that there is racial and religious discrimination in publicly funded buildings of New York City, and other such activities. Almost every week we can read the NY POST or Daily News and see a school employee handcuffed and led outside the front door of his or her school in front of the very same children who were being taught by this person moments before. It is very easy for a Principal to make a call to the local police station and tell them that a teacher just touched/punched/hit a child, whether this teacher did so or not. Within minutes, cameras are in front of the school as the person accused is marched out in handcuffs. The public is "told" visually that this person was guilty of a crime, before there is any investigation. This is the process that Joel Klein has spent seven years perfecting, and the public must put a stop to it.
Being re-assigned to a “rubber room” is often as simple as the Principal doesn’t want you, and doesn't want to train you or assign you to a class that is appropriate for you. The Principal can pick up the telephone or open his/her email, and let someone know at the NYC BOE that teacher X stole something, scrubbed test scores or harmed a child, and need not have any evidence or proof. The teacher is not informed of the allegation until the Gotcha Squad has “proven” the allegation, and he/she is on the subway, in a bus, or is driving to a TRC. Often, the employee does not know even then why he/she is going away from the students who are waiting in the school. The NYC BOE would like to get rid of the Union protection and fire the individual on the spot, but the UFT stops the firing of any tenured employee, and gives the employee a chance to gather evidence and prove his or her innocence. The UFT also provides, as I wrote above, some of the best lawyers in town, free of charge to its members for 3020-a hearings.
But the NYC BOE is not interested in finding the “right” classroom for an employee, and does not want people who have a conscience, are courageous, are too experienced, lose a loved one and must attend funerals, gets sick or has operations, or in any way impedes the business of education. Notice I did not say “educating”.
The education of more than 1 million public school children in New York City is a big business. Too big to allow any employee to undermine or sabotage the huge amount of funds generated every year by no bid contracts, scrubbed grades, false test results, and other misinformation that wins big awards. Guess who wins The Broad Prize every year? The most successful education business, not necessarily the school district that educated its students most successfully...and is validated by national testing standards (NAEP).
I have been writing on this website and on my blog (NYC Rubber Room Reporter) about the "rubberization" process since 2004, when I attended my first 3020-a hearing at the request of a re-assigned teacher named David Pakter. As my dad was Assistant Attorney General for the State of New York, I was familiar with the legal system from an early age, but I had never seen anything similar to what I saw at Mr. Pakter's arbitration. I decided then that I would research this further, and, for the past five years, I have attended hearings when asked by the teacher whose hearing it is, to attend, and he/she requests an open and public hearing. Full disclosure: I am a part-time consultant for the United Federation of Teachers, and therefore can visit the "rubber rooms" of New York City to speak with the teachers temporarily re-assigned now to any of the six separate locations. The time I spend sitting at hearings is my own time.
A tenured teacher accused of incompetence or misconduct not only has Union protection from being fired until the charges against him or her are "proven" by a preponderance of evidence, but the teacher also gets free legal representation from NYS United Teachers, or NYSUT, based in Latham New York. Most of these Attorneys are the best in the business, they know the rather unusual procedures followed at the arbitration hearings, they know the arbitrators, they care about their teacher-clients, and do thorough jobs.
I have, therefore, personal knowledge of what I write about the "3020-a" hearings of teachers displaced because of an allegation of wrong-doing or incompetence. One of the biggest problems with this process is the fact that Principals are immune from prosecution for any lies they tell or false claims alleged against anyone, due to the support and assistance of the City of New York Law Department, the New York City Board of Education, and the personal intervention of Joel Klein, his General Counsel Michael Best, Corporate Counsel chief Michael Cardozo, and Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon. Principals and Assistant Principals are almost always protected from any accountability for their own theft, conflicts of interest, misconduct, or incompetence. This in turn leads to an erosion of the working relationship between the administrators and everyone else inside a school building. I often hear how 20 or more teachers left at the end of a school year, rather than go back to a building where an abusive, hostile Principal wielded a heavy hand of unfairness and abuse against all the staff and teachers, with a few designated favorites staying out of the boxing ring. This is not good for the children, who always value stability, especially if they love a certain teacher who suddenly is gone without explanation. The children never forget this.
The "Gotcha Squad" starts the process when a Principal is told that something has happened in the school that involves a teacher, or a teacher is not making the grade - in his or her opinion - and must leave the school. This squad's assignment is to cull the personnel file of anything that can be used against the teacher to remove him/her from the school. Often, this "research" is done without any awareness of the teacher, and the teacher is re-assigned based upon the “sufficient” gathering of evidence to “prove” the case against him or her at a 3020-a.
Think of this as if you were working on your job for five years, and one day you are told to leave your school in five minutes, or at the end of the day, and report to a re-assignment center where you await charges. You could wait months, even years, for your charges. Your employer, the New York City Board of Education, may tell you that "an investigation" is being conducted, so you must wait until this is over. This information is either frivolous or false. The two resident investigating agencies, the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) and the Special Commissioner For Investigations (SCI) are not interested in conducting proper investigations unless there are documents/pictures/first hand witnesses who cannot be refuted. You know how that works - you are actually guilty and then you have to prove your innocence.
Sometimes the NYC BOE is right. Not all teachers are innocent. But no matter what, the process is broken, and the New York City BOE has placed unlimited power in the hands of Principals who can carry grudges to the extreme, and trash a person who they simply dont like. This is often called workplace bullying, or mobbing. The hardship usually begins and ends with mean-spirited administrators who want to use their power abusively. As the NYC BOE has control over the personnel file of each employee, and as accurate, factual information is the nightmare of the NYC BOE, Bloomberg and Klein have spent the last seven years getting “friendly” with the New York City media. How do I know? I know many of the reporters in NYC. I hear all the time, “They don’t want me to do that story” (if the NYC BOE may end up looking "bad").
In fact, David Pakter’s story appeared on this website several times and on my blog, and also in the New York Teacher. For this last article, he was charged with making the NYC BOE “look bad”. The UFT demanded this charge be removed from his 3020-a specifications, and it was. Amidst the current economic downturn there is an office at Tweed, the NYC BOE headquarters, which continues to grow: the press/public relations office. The NYC BOE is deathly afraid of people who are not under their control, and write about their actions. I am proud to be in this group.
When I attended the open hearing of a teacher named Lucienne Mohammed at her request, I was not surprised to see Steven Brill and Ann Foote from the NYC BOE public relations office already sitting in the room assigned for the arbitration hearing. Lucienne’s case is a strong one for her and the UFT, and the NYC BOE is clearly worried. So, what they decided to do, is, I believe, pay Steven Brill to do an article on the Rubber Rooms with the main agenda being to put a quick end to Mrs. Mohammed’s employment. Mr. Brill could, he was told, have access to any file that he wanted, courtesy of the NYC BOE. So my questions to Mr. Brill are: First, who paid you to write the article on the NYC Rubber Rooms?? Second, if you were given Lucienne Mohammed's file, why didn't you write about her Special Complaint and her grievances?
Mr. Brill could, he was told, have access to any file that he wanted, courtesy of the NYC BOE. I have written about payola before on this website. Mr. Brill and Ms. Foote stayed maybe 10-15 minutes, then abruptly left. We did not know that Brill had been given Lucienne’s file without her agreement or knowledge. The NYC BOE is very liberal with giving out information to defame someone they want to remove from the system. I posted the article about Kathy Blythe above, and there are many more examples of SCI releases that are false being sent out as press releases (Teddy Smith), and teachers' files being given to reporters behind their backs.
Yet look at the Protective Order and stipulation that New York City Law Department Attorney Maxwell Leighton sent teacher Hipolito Colon, who sued the NYC BOE for putting him in a Rubber Room after he blew the whistle on the wrong-doing of the Principal of PS 120, Liza Carabello. Mr. Colon asked for the disciplinary letter that Superintendent James Quail wrote to Principal Carabello for hiring an uncertified teacher for a year, and for other improper acts. Mr. Leighton sent Mr. Colon a log of all the documents that he could have IF he would not show anyone these documents. Ever. In this log, you can see documents that were given to the Panel For Educational Policy members who are not NYC BOE employees. You might ask, as I did, how do they get away with this selective viewing of material evidence?
Lucienne Mohammed has one of the most interesting cases that I have observed. I have attended almost all of her 30+ hearings, so I know her case and the people involved quite well and can say unequivocally that Steven Brill misinformed the readers of his biased article "The Rubber Room" published in the New Yorker magazine at the end of August, 2009. He could not have been more wrong about the facts in Lucienne's case.
Who is Steven Brill? He is an extremely bright man who seems to fail at everything that he does. I downloaded just a few of the ventures that he has started and that have failed, and I offer articles from the internet:
Steve Brill introduction to fee media
Newspapers restrict information to those who can and want to pay for it
The article that is so offensive and wrong is here:
New Yorker Magazine
A journalist named Michael Wolff was investigated by Steven Brill in 1998, and he wrote about it:
New York Magazine
Wolff's Brill's Content
by Michael Wolff, August 31, 1998
When Steve Brill decided to investigate me, I decided to investigate him back -- and therein discovered the "true" nature (more or less) of his overreaching crusade.
I am being investigated by Brill's Content.
"There are serious questions being raised about your new book," a young reporter from the magazine charges.
"Who's raising these questions?"
"I'm not free to tell you that."
"It's a funny book," I say lightly. "I hope the questions aren't too serious." The book, Burn Rate, is a memoir about the birth of the Internet industry and the tragicomic (more farce than tragedy) failure of my own Internet business.
"I don't think it would be funny if you distorted the truth."
"It's my story. It's the way I saw it," I sputter defensively, feeling unpleasantly compared to the disgraced reporter Stephen Glass.
A few days later, Brill's reporter, Noah Robischon, calls back and asks for the notes and other materials I've used to write the book. He seems genuinely put out, affronted even, when I decline to surrender my notes.
"I think you should seriously think about turning them over," he says ominously.
The editorial proposition of the magazine is that we all want to know about how the media works. The subtext is that journalists are such a despised class that large numbers of people will buy a magazine that rebukes them. "Journalists are probably the only people on the planet who make lawyers look good," says the magazine's chairman, CEO, publisher, and editor, Steven Brill, whose earlier entrepreneurial effort was a magazine about lawyers.
The business proposition is aggressive, too. The magazine is not just for people in the media business. Brill's Content wants to achieve a circulation of 500,000 and attract big brand-name consumer advertisers -- a formidable, expensive, and wildly unlikely undertaking. Brill himself says it will cost $25 million. In an introduction to the first issue, editor Brill speaks of a search for truth -- Brill's reporters will be an independent truth squad ("We see this as the one black line in everything we are going to write about: Is it true?"). Putting aside questions of whose truth it will be, it's hard to imagine that a seasoned entrepreneur would spend $25 million only for the truth.
Brill's mission is to cover the media, and so is mine; therefore, I reason with some insouciance, I should cover Brill covering me. Sort of Wolff's Brill's Content.
I e-mail Brill's twentysomething reporter that I would like to question him about his questioning of me.
In short order, Caroline Miller, New York's editor-in-chief, receives a call from Brill complaining that I am trying to intimidate his "young reporter." Partly, no doubt, because Brill himself is changing the assumptions of how to report who said what to whom, Ms. Miller prepares what lawyers call contemporaneous notes of her conversation with Brill. From Miller's report of her conversation, it's clear that Brill is not amused by the double reversal I'm proposing -- writing about Brill writing about me writing about other people. His mission, he obviously believes, is righteous, and mine dubious.
"The tenor of Michael's proposal," Miller says to Brill, "as it was conveyed to me, was quite . . . sportsmanlike."
"Well," says Brill, "this was a young reporter, and when he came to talk to me about it, I have to tell you, he was scared to death. . . ."
This seems to be, if not an invitation, at least a reason to call Brill himself. Brill says: "I do not discuss stories we're working on . . ." and hangs up on me. There's wrath in his voice, and some other note: fervor. (Minutes later, however, his assistant calls back to get my address, title, and other specifics for the office Rolodex.)
I find myself asking the question the investigated always asks about the investigator: Who is this guy, anyway?
In fact, it's hard to have hung around the media business and not know Brill. He's one of the business's unique creations. Many people have their Brill story: He's made them cry, or kept them waiting for hours, or upbraided them publicly. The stories of his financial ups and downs, his deals, his battles, his chutzpa, are legion. His passionate admirers are outnumbered only by his passionate detractors. He is what my father used to call "an operator." So his new role, necessarily holier than thou, seems an unlikely one.
But maybe not.
His first venture, American Lawyer, launched in 1978, was dedicated to arbitrating the professional behavior of lawyers. As the bête noire of the legal community, Brill cut a vivid figure: a bouncerlike, cigar-smoking, bullying, crass-comic character in a Saul Bellow novel; part journalist, part wheeler-dealer, part power broker. It wasn't just lawyers whom he antagonized, either. The magazine New York Woman ran a story about the worst places for women to work, flatly stating that the story did not include jobs "inherently loathsome for men and for women, such as working in a subway booth, scrubbing floors or working for Steven Brill, the notoriously bullying editor of American Lawyer."
Brill's bid to build a legal-publishing empire foundered on his expansion plans (he spent $30 million to $40 million on local legal newspapers), and in 1988, Warner's Steve Ross agreed to bail him out. What Brill sold Ross was a new idea: the law as tabloid television. Under the auspices of Time Warner (after Ross agreed to buy American Lawyer, the Time Warner deal happened), Brill launched Court TV, which, post-O.J., found itself at the bottom of the cable ratings.
The mantra inside Time Warner whenever Brill's name came up was "Has this guy ever made money?"
A year ago, having decided it did not want his legal publications and did not want him to run Court TV, Time Warner ousted Brill with a reported $20 million payoff for his remaining stake -- in media-mogul terms, a relative pittance. Certainly not enough to buy yourself another company.
With the help of Howard Milstein, of the real-estate Milsteins, investment banker Lester Pollack, and Barry Diller (can you run a media-watchdog magazine when your partner is a media mogul?), Brill began Brill's Content.
"Once you come up with a couple of ideas that work, people will usually finance the next one no matter how dumb it is," Brill told the New York Times.
And certainly on its magazine-business basics, Brill's Content is dumb. Try finding 500,000 subscribers to a magazine about ethical conduct. In fact, the idea is so dumb that you have to assume there is another strategy here beyond circulation and advertising.
His choosing to call the magazine Content (Brill says the magazine changed the name to Brill's Content because of trademark issues), that awkward word that technologists use to describe the non-code stuff that augments software, is noteworthy. I think it's fair to assume Brill's Content's business model works like an Internet business model. The proposed $25 million investment in the magazine seems clearly designed to grab "mindshare," to build brand. And the brand is Brill.
My guess is that Brill is trying to create an official seal of approval -- to become the independent prosecutor of information. (Indeed, I received a written set of interrogatories from Brill's reporter. Example: "Dinner in SF -- it's midnight for you and you stay up most of the night -- how did you get the right quotes from the people at the table?") Information's independent prosecutor is a very frightening thought, but it could also be an incredibly valuable one.
In its most benign form, it could be a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. We in the Brill Labs have tested this nonfiction and find that its sourcing methods and general probity conform to our standards. It is easy to imagine that Yahoo, for instance, could "partner" with Brill or "co-brand" with Brill. Brill would provide the editorial "brand" on the vast streams of content running through the global network. FEATURING ONLY BRILL'S CONTENT would flash across participating Websites.
I have seen this business plan many times -- numerous entrepreneurs believe that the market demands a way to regulate the anarchy of content. We need a global editor (editor-in-chief of the world) to tell us what information we can trust. What this plan has always lacked is someone with the certainty and aggressiveness to say, I can tell you what's true and what isn't! Brill's Content, Brill says, "is about all that purports to be nonfiction. So it should be no surprise that our first principle is that anything selling itself to you as nonfiction should be true."
Still, Brill has overreached before. If I were making suggestions about his business plan, I'd say the whole of nonfiction is a grab. Apparently, Brill doesn't want just television news or newspaper reporting. Brill wants everything that is not a novel or a poem to fall under his stamp of approval -- that is, news, essays, magazine features, memoirs, documentaries, history, criticism, speeches, polls, news-group postings, editorial cartoons, and the Bible, as well as a good deal of humor, satire, and parody. All this turned over to Brill's young reporters.
"Our approach," Brill says, "is to look at nonfiction media as a consumer product."
For me, having written a book that is both true and satirical, one that, in the venerable tradition of satire, shamelessly settles many scores, it is something of a literary comedy or nightmare to be dogged by a young reporter calling up the various people I have savaged to get them to say, Yes, Michael Wolff is a person of questionable morals.
Indeed. Alan Patricof, the New York venture capitalist and Clinton host and contributor who is a figure of some derision in my book (and who is or is not an acquaintance of Brill's), and who is represented by the noted First Amendment lawyer Marty Garbus (who is or is not an acquaintance of Brill's), is soliciting me to change certain passages about him in future editions of my book. Part of the inducement is that if I agree to make such changes, Patricof, Garbus suggests, will not talk to the Brill reporter who has contacted him regarding the story about me.
And then: Brill's young reporter seems to believe I've made up the figure in my book of the smarmy AOL executive (I wish) who seduced me with deals that never got done. Though I decided for various soft-hearted reasons to spare this person public disclosure, now, according to Brill, in order to preserve my own reputation, I should name him.
"Why didn't you name names?" Brill's young reporter asked, oblivious to the echo.
The reversals, inversions, and conflicts are breathtaking. The level of full disclosure that's required is Jesuitical. I suppose I should disclose that the more Brill criticizes my book the more books I sell; likewise, the more I rail against him, the more Brill Brill becomes. Brill, of course, is using the media to make a spectacle of himself covering the media. Brill is shocked, shocked; I am shocked, shocked that he is shocked, shocked. What Brill is showing us is not the backstage view of how the media really works, but the levers and cranks by which almost everyone, most of all Brill himself, gets hoisted by his own petard.
Building brand, or making a name for yourself, is largely a function of aligning yourself with the Zeitgeist. As the Zeitgeist turns, Brill chose to go with Starr not Clinton -- with the prosecutor, not the rogue. Maybe he's picked right, although I hope not.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. E-mail: email@example.com.
Pretty scary stuff. Presently, Mr. Brill is trying to get media to set up a system whereby they will get paid for the information that they publish. Mr. Brill believes that people will want pay for information, and has started a business to provide this information to the media. In his rubber room article he does not say that he was paid by the NYC BOE, but it was very clear to Lucienne and me that indeed he was working with and/or for them when he wrote the article for the New Yorker. When someone is hired to write an article and does not disclose who is paying him or her, than there is a serious error, because the public will not know that the ‘facts’ cited in the article may not be true, or are reported in a biased fashion. I believe that Steven Brill was paid to write the article called “The Rubber Room” by the NYC BOE in order to provide the NYC BOE another step in the desire to overrule any presumed objection to what the NYC BOE is doing, i.e., making teachers guilty when indeed they are innocent of any charges. I believe that the public and teachers must look at the giving of personnel files to a reporter without prior approval of the person whose file it is, is unconstitutional.
Look at what the NYC BOE did to Teddy Smith: "they" - meaning the SCI folk with the help of Theresa Europe at the ATU (Gotcha Squad) - published a report and sent it to t