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I Think I Can Help You With The Budget Crisis, Governor Paterson

Earlier this week, I had the good fortune to attend a hearing for a colleague at the Department of Education's headquarters. She had allegedly been absent and late numerous times the previous year, and, consequently, was given an Unsatisfactory rating by the principal of the school. I can't (for legal reasons) divulge the intricacies of the hearing, but I can dispassionately detail for you my experiences.

Interesting Fact #1: The receptionist at the desk was mentally retarded. I don't mean that as a childish insult, I mean literally, she had an obvious mental deficiency. She spoke really, really loudly, but, simultaneously, really, really slowly, like a 78 record being played back at 33 and at full volume. Yes, a record. You know, the shiny vinyl discs that people used to use to play music? In any case, in addition to groaning everything she said, she also didn't bother to greet us or ask us our names or case number when we approached her desk. I had to ask if we were supposed to sign in or something. She sighed VERY LOUDLY, and screamed, "Sign in! Sign in!" and thrust a clipboard in our general direction. After doing so, I gave the clipboard back to her, and she proceeded to throw it to the side of her desk, where it landed with a clatter. At no point did she ever pick it up to see who we were, or what we were doing there.

Interesting Fact #2: As my colleague and I sat in the waiting area discussing her case, the receptionist picked up the phone, dialed a number, and begin to VERY LOUDLY make an appointment at a clinic to get her thyroid examined. I know because she asked the person on the other end TEN TIMES a) if she had reached the clinic and b) when she could come in to have her thyroid looked at. Presumably, the clinic hired from the same employment pool as the DOE. During this time, the office phone rang 15 times, but went completely unanswered. Remember – this office is in charge of adjudicating "Unsatisfactory Rating Appeals" which could make or break a teacher's career and reputation. After making the appointment (Thursday at 11 AM), the receptionist proceeded to dial another number (ignoring three more incoming calls) and VERY LOUDLY explain to the person on the other end the types of difficulty she was having with her thyroid. She was so loud that a woman, who may have been some sort of supervisor, came over from another office, to see what the problem was. The receptionist then proceeded to explain to the supervisor EXACTLY what she had just said on the phone during both conversations. Halfway through her story, the supervisor threw her hands up in the air, and walked away, rolling her eyes so hard that I could hear them scrape against the back of her skull.

Interesting Fact #3: Ironically, even though my colleague was being called to this hearing for excessive lateness, the hearing officer himself was five minutes late. I pointed this out to him during my witness statement.

Interesting Fact #4: I wasn't actually allowed to attend the preliminary motions of the hearing, as I was appearing as a witness, and not as a Union Rep, so I had to stay in the waiting room – even though the Principal and her witness were allowed to be there for the entirety of the hearing. And by "there," I mean "the comfort of her office back at school." See, even though the accused teacher and her witness had to trek all the way to Brooklyn, the principal and her cronies could "attend" by means of telephone conference call linked to a speakerphone in the hearing officer's chambers. This puts them at a distinct advantage.

Interesting Fact #5: The witness for the principal is a retired administrator currently "supervising" one of the academic departments at our school. He has no supervisory powers, and has absolutely nothing to do with teacher attendance. When I pointed this out to my colleague's counsel, she asked that he be removed from the proceedings. Naturally, since he was only present via telephone, we have no way of knowing if he complied or merely remained quiet during the hearing, intermittently passing notes to the principal and coaching her via head nods.

Interesting Fact #6: As I sat idly in the aforementioned waiting area, I decided to forego leafing through three year-old issues of Better Homes and Gardens and decided to do some detective work instead. My investigations went unnoticed, because the receptionist, perhaps troubled by her thyroid, got up and left the office completely empty save for me and the phones ringing off the hook. The first thing I noticed was the "Quality of Work Life Program" certificate hanging behind the receptionist's desk. A Quick Google search on the ol' Blackberry told me that this was a joint labor-management program whose activities included "employee recognition events acknowledging longevity of service and perfect attendance." Basically, the receptionist was rewarded by the city for being inefficient and unprofessional for an extended, uninterrupted period of time.

Interesting Fact #7: My investigation also uncovered a "Work Schedule" posted on the wall of the adjoining office. From what I can gather, there are only 20 hearing officers who preside over everything from U-rating and Discontinuance Appeals (of which there were 50 scheduled that week) to Step Two Union Grievances (of which there were 26 that week alone). They work from 9 AM to 2 PM and then again from 3:30 until, well, until whenever they finish up. Grievance hearings are only scheduled for 15 minutes; each hearing officer presides over three a day, consecutively, and presumably can be done with work at 4:15 – a work day of 5 hours and 45 minutes. That's 35 minutes less than a teacher (you know, the people who are always being lambasted as overpaid and underworked) must work according to contract. I have no accompanying citation, but a friend of mine who is a former Union Rep told me that Hearing Officers make in excess of $100,000 a year – they also get the same vacation time as teachers, by the way.

Interesting Fact# 8: In total, according to the posted schedule, the DOE employs 20 Hearing Officers in five separate rooms to hear 75 cases per week. That particular week, the schedule informed me that each officer was scheduled to hear 4 cases a day, one of which only lasts for 15 minutes. My colleague's hearing lasted just under an hour; that puts the average workday for Hearing Officers at 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Interesting Fact #9: Also during my investigation, I discovered that not one person was actively working. There were 12 or so people in the main office, and during the time before and after giving my testimony, not one of them seemed to be doing anything remotely involved with hearings. They made coffee and oatmeal in the office microwave, they talked about the Oscar winners, they made and received personal phone calls (two doctors' appointments and one home improvement contractor), and they surfed the internet and chuckled to themselves. Mostly, however, they milled around aimlessly sipping their various beverages and shuffled in and out of each others' offices either laughing at jokes or mumbling to each other. In all honesty, it was like watching extras on the set of a movie taking a break between camera set-ups.

Interesting Fact #10: The receptionist came back after 20 minutes, sat her desk, and did absolutely nothing for the next 20 minutes. Literally. She did not answer a phone, pick up a pen, or use the computer. She sat there and stared at her monitor, smiling to herself. While I was testifying I, admittedly, have no idea if she continued to sit there and do nothing during the period of time I was not there to observe her. Perhaps she regaled some other poor soul with tales of her thyroid.

Interesting Fact #11: I was finally called into the hearing room where I basically sat in a chair and read verbatim a statement that I had prepared some days prior. It took all of five minutes. My statement could have been notarized and entered as a sworn deposition, but according to the DOE rules, I had to present it in person. The only thing I was asked was, "Do you have anything else to add?" This is when I pointed out that I found it humorous that the hearing officer was late to an appeal dealing with employee lateness. Even he laughed. Then I was ushered out the door and sent back to the waiting room. Time spent in an official capacity during the hearing: seven minutes. Cost to the city: $154.97 in per diem rates for a substitute for my classes plus my daily salary, which is pro-rated to around $383. (Cost of emailing or faxing my testimony to be entered as a legal deposition: .03 Cents). Cost to cover my accused colleague's classes for the day: the same $154.97, plus her pro-rated salary of $555. Cost of the Hearing Officer's salary per actual appeal hearing: $111. Total cost to the City of New York (and the taxpayers) for attempting to give a 23-year veteran teacher an Unsatisfactory rating for being 3 minutes late a few times to school: $1358.94

Epilogue: When we returned to the school, the accused teacher successfully lobbied the principal to reimburse her for the $20 she spent on parking in downtown Brooklyn, the Principal called me a "liar" and the accused teacher called out "sick" the next day.

If I could actually make this sort of stuff up, I'd be a successful novelist by now.


will said…
I'm enjoying reading everything here. Please keep writing and fighting the good fight.

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