Nearly half of the state arbitrators assigned to hear cases of teacher misconduct in New York City have quit in the last few weeks, creating a potential backlog of cases in an already cluttered system, NBC 4 New York's I-Team has learned.
Ten of the 24 arbitrators who handle city cases have walked off the job, primarily because they have not been paid. Some arbitrators contracted by the state are owed at least two years' back pay.
State Education Department officials did not deny that the arbitrators are owed back pay.
Records obtained by NBC 4 New York showed last year’s salary budget for arbitrators was $3.8 million, but they were owed an estimated $9.5 million.
"Arbitrators play a crucial role in solving disputes,” said teacher’s union president Michael Mulgrew. “They haven’t been paid. When people do work, they should get paid.”
In April, 33 arbitrators across the state filed a lawsuit against the state education department, claiming they were owed nearly $5.1 million.
In the lawsuit, arbitrator Martin Scheinman said he was owed $651,594.91 for work he’s done over the last three and a half years.
State officials say the arbitration budget ran out of money in part because arbitrators are too expensive. Until last month, arbitrators billed the state up to $1,800 a day. That fee is now capped at $1,400.
Some arbitrators said that fee cap factored into their decision to leave. They also said the state has been setting tighter deadlines for completing cases. That, combined with the owed back pay, is driving many of them out the door.
The sudden shortage of arbitrators will likely worsen the city's notoriously long and costly teacher discipline process, according to city and state officials.
“This presents a unique and unprecedented challenge to ensuring the best and most qualified teachers are in our classrooms,” said Jessica Scaperotti, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Education.
State Education Department spokesman Dennis Tompkins said, “We’re very concerned about the potential backlog of cases created by the loss of these arbitrators.”
The performance of arbitrators recently made headlines. An increased number of misconduct complaints against teachers in New York City this year has made for a heavier workload, according to school investigators.
Some cases against teachers have dragged on for months and sometimes even years, allowing abusive teachers to keep collecting paychecks while innocent teachers are left in limbo.
"At any point in time if an arbitrator leaves, it's never great," said Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. "People like to get paid, but the bottom line is the state has its own challenges."
Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott have been urging the state to give the city’s schools chancellor final say on which teachers to fire.
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