2006-06-16 / Columnists

School Scope

All Psyched Up With No Place To Go
By Norman Scott

How many times have you heard BloomKlein defending the "Children First" initiative by crying to the press about how hard it is to remove a tenured teacher and how the teacher contract was the only thing holding them back from being able to truly change the school system so that every child will be able to achieve a PhD? How many times has the education press bought this line, to the extent that teachers and their 200-page contact are pilloried regularly as the major hindrance to reform? We expect this from the press (other than The Wave, of course), which is owned by and large by anti-union people. You know the stories bandied about. Like the teacher who murdered and ate 12 children but ends up sitting in a rubber room (or teacher reassignment center) for decades collecting his pay. The anti-union press loves to spread these stories to prove BloomKlein's point.

Well, thank goodness for the UFT and that 200 plus contract, teachers say. (They say it less since the last contract was signed in October.) Then again, you get these words from Randi Weingarten, President of the United Federation of Teachers, when she spoke to a business group a few years ago:

"Yes, this is a union president who is going to talk about removing teachers who should not be teaching. And I do that without hesitation, because this is a union that is not about just keeping people. We are about keeping qualified people.... I want you all to know that I fully briefed Joel Klein last night on this speech because I want to do in every way possible what I can to extend my hand in partnership, and my members' hands in partnership."

Okaaay! UFT members will find it comforting to know their leader will cooperate in getting rid of "unqualified" people. But what if the process is being used to remove people for reasons having nothing to do with their teaching ability or their relationships with children (people accused of improper relationships, for using physical force, etc.)? In other words, are people being removed who are good teachers, but are pains in the asses, not well liked, or just plain eccentric?

So, you tell your principal that you think the latest directive from some idiot buried somewhere in the Region or Tweed bureaucracy is absolutely nuts, impossible to implement and will actually be harmful to students. The next thing you know you are in the rubber room and awaiting your appointment with a Department of Education Medical Office shrink (to qualify for this job you must quack like a duck 3 times a day.) You must be crazy for not seeing the logic of any DOE "the plan," whatever "plan" that may be.

I must be writing fiction here. Would/could a teacher be removed for anything other than an issue related to their teaching ability? Let's take the case of David Pakter who taught for 37 years, mostly at the High School of Art & Design. I met Pakter this past year when he asked people to attend hearings designed to fire him as a way of showing him support.

In September 2004, Pakter was removed from his school two days after he refused to surrender a videotape he had made of a music class (with the teacher's permission) in an elementary school housed in the Art & Design building. Pakter was trying to prove that these kids were getting a high-level music program while the kids at the high school were being denied similar services and he was claiming this was a Federal Civil Rights violation. While I don't agree with the way Pakter went about it, this is clearly a political fight - not one that I or most others would choose - but it is his right to express these opinions. His teaching ability was never once in question, even by the DOE. Insubordination is what this is all about.

Pakter was banished to languish in one of the system's lovely rubber rooms for a year. The principal who ordered his removal retired the following day, leaving Pakter to fight a ghost.

Why would the DOE spend enormous sums to get him fired (there are numerous hearings with DOE lawyers present and a high-paid arbitrator in addition to NY State United Teacher lawyers) over an incident like this? Pakter was told all he had to do was surrender the tape and he would be given a slap on the wrist. But he wouldn't do it, never believing that a teacher with 35 years of satisfactory ratings, having been praised and honored for the work he did with students as an art teacher, would find himself in teaching purgatory over such a trivial matter. Call him stubborn or eccentric. He may be a good teacher but he must be crazy for fighting the system.

So naturally he was sent to a DOE shrink. And guess what? The DOE shrink ruled he was unfit to teach. 

But they weren't dealing with someone they could intimidate. Pakter was not in teaching to make a living. He already was beyond retirement age and could have ended the proceedings at any point by just retiring. He is also a well-known designer of watches ( http://www.davidpakterwatches.com/ ) - he had to postpone one of his hearings to make a trip to China to help set up a factory for his watches. He also has sons who are lawyers. But more about that later.

Pakter had used his wealth to supplement his teaching, often buying books for his classes - he felt the students at his school should be exposed to a language other than Spanish and brought them French language books, which he used for the first 5 minutes of each of his art classes. The Art & Design administration criticized him for not following the art curriculum. He holds a Masters Degree in Anatomy and designed, funded and built from the ground up, the nation's first Medical Illustration program for gifted inner city students, with the aim of having the program serve as a launching pad for entry into Ivy League Medical Schools.

Pakter went to an independent shrink at his own expense and lo and behold, he was found to be normal. Attempts to submit this report at his hearings were fought rigorously by the DOE lawyers (you should only see what this crew is like.) At the Final Binding Medical Arbitration early this year, the arbitrator conceded that there was not the slightest scientific evidence to support the claim by the Director of The New York City Dept of Education Medical Office, Dr. Audrey Jacobson, that Pakter was not fit for duty, yet, the DOE delayed for almost half a year the admission by Jacobson that her department was incorrect in their original finding. Finally, on June 5 Jacobson admitted in a signed letter sent to Pakter, that her office made a mistake in claiming Mr. Pakter was not fit for duty.  "The independent medical arbitrator has upheld your appeal, and has declared that the Medical, Leaves & Benefits Office was incorrect in deeming you unfit for duty as of August 16, 2005. Betsy Combier, editor of the website ParentAdvocates.org, was the first to report on June 14, 2006, the outcome of Pakter's case in an article titled David Pakter, Former Teacher, Wins His Medical Arbitration Agains the New York City Department of Education, which can be viewed at http://parentadvocates.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=article&articleid= 6986

The findings of the medical arbitrator are equally binding on you and the Department of Education. A copy of the arbitrator's decision has been sent to your physician." I guess an apology would have been too much to expect. The entire medical office should have been made to walk on their knees from Tweed to Pakter's apartment with copies of the letter in their mouths. They should have been joined by BloomKlein.

Pakter recently wrote in an email/ press release:"Due to the fact that numerous Department of Education doctors and office administrators were involved in what many observers consider the premeditated and willful 'railroading' of Mr. Pakter', numerous lawsuits seeking multi-million dollar damage awards for possible intentional medical malpractice are expected to result from this case. Some observers believe that some of the doctors who were involved should have their license to practice medicine, permanently revoked." Go get 'em tiger! It's nice to have sons who are lawyers.

Now I know a lot of you, especially people outside the system, must be shaking their heads, thinking "where there's smoke there's fire" and there must be something else going on behind the scenes. Larry Taylor, the former chapter leader at Art & Design, one of the most respected teachers I have ever met (and one of the six opposition members of the UFT Executive Board) testified in Pakter's behalf and has been firm in his commitment to the fact that Pakter was an excellent, caring teacher. That's good enough for me.

Is this case an anomaly? Wave editor Howard Schwach reported on former Far Rockaway teacher Francine Newman's book "Cannibals at 110 Livingston Street." She was found not fit for duty by the DOE Medical Office in the 1970's and fought for eight years all the way up to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to have the charges against her thrown out. She finally won and resumed her teaching career.

You know that "problem" 200-page contract - it should be 400 pages. The principal at Humanities High School in Manhattan recently sent a member of the staff for a psychiatric exam and is reportedly sending a bunch more teachers he doesn't like to the rubber room as a preface to a visit to the DOE Medical Bureau. Pakter's lawyers may be very busy soon and "Dr." Jacobson may just as well send out a form letter of apology. Quack, Quack!

Next: How Maria Colon, a chapter leader at JFK HS, blew the whistle on the school administration for cheating on regents exams and is going through hearings to fire her for daring to fax proof of their transgressions. "Children First" indeed!

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