Monday, February 18, 2019

Is Your Arbitrator Fair and Impartial?

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say no, not necessarily. Unless there's something vital this story failed to catch, its subject, a now-fired young teacher  playing online Xbox games with students harbored no ill intent and caused no harm. It's bad judgment, I think, as off hours social involvement with students ought to be off the table. Still, I'd argue that this should be a cease and desist, a counseling memo, or a letter to file at the very worst.

Of course, I am not an arbitrator. Arbitrators are our last go to for theoretically unbiased decisions in matters between administration and UFT. I'm sure I've written many times about the grievance process, but I'll do a quick recap--Step one is with the principal, who likely as not is the person who violated the contract. Pretty much everyone thinks what they do is right, and there's an entire department they call "legal" whose job it is to tell principals to do whatever the hell they feel like. At step one, your chances are slim.

You then move on to step two, where you meet a representative of the chancellor and one of the superintendent. Alas, the reps there are all Bloomberg leftovers trained to believe the principal is always right. In one case I brought to them last year, when a letter in file was issued over three months after the incident occurred, we got a response back stating the incident was not an occurrence, and that the three month rule therefore did not apply. I wondered what drugs you'd need to take to think of this stuff. I've been waiting almost a year for this, along with a half-dozen other cases, to hit an arbitrator, but the wheels of UFT grievance grind exceedingly slowly.

The problem is that once you hit an arbitrator there are no guarantees you will get a sensible decision. Exhibit A, I suppose, is the young teacher being fired for playing online video games with a few kids. Hopefully that will be reversed on appeal. But I've got stories of my own.

The first will be the arbitrators on class size. I wrote in the Daily News about how they approved "action plans" that served no one but those who favored classes that exceeded contractual limits, already too high. Arbitrators thought it was a good idea to leave 37 kids in the class and give teachers one day off a week from tutoring. I told DOE reps at contract negotiations that the only possible way that could be helpful would be if I used that time for therapy to deal with the stress and frustration of dealing with the oversized classes.

Another time, I grieved that teachers didn't receive full schedules with rooms the day before they left for summer break. I did this because we'd received strips of paper giving us new schedules that were identical to our old ones. The rooms, times, co-teachers, and comp-time jobs turned out to be identical too, even for people whose comp-time jobs were expiring. I argued that this was a farce and a blatant violation. The DOE said it was fine, and the arbitrator agreed.

Our school uses an SBO to enable PD, teacher teams, OPW, tutoring and other things. It's pretty popular, and drew 100% support last year. It drew close to that in previous years. After I lost to the arbitrator, I added language to the SBO stating that teachers would get new programs rather than recycled ones, and that there would be good faith effort to anticipate what would happen. Of course they'd be subject to change, and of course the contract anticipated that.

Here's the thing--the arbitrator failed to understand unequivocal contract language. Maybe he was stupid. Maybe he was on drugs. Maybe he didn't like me. Who knows? In the end, all that matters is he was dead wrong. And this guy could be the guy who decides whether or not you get to keep your job. That's chilling.

I'm not sure what the solution is here. I know that arbitrators are jointly picked by UFT and DOE. I also know that DOE stacks the deck by sending wasteful crap cases to arbitrators on black letter violations. I have a bunch of them waiting, as the DOE, which has no respect whatsoever for educators, hopes that arbitrators don't understand or enforce unequivocal language. I'm hopeful that some new contractual regulations will redirect a portion of the obvious cases from the paws of arbitrators.

Meanwhile, I don't have a whole lot of faith in their judgment. Hopefully they'll do something to change my mind, and soon.
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