Friday, January 25, 2013

"Accuse and Remove" and Francesco Portelos

He is an experienced, qualified teacher of Science, Engineering Technology and Math (STEM). He is a former environmental engineer. He has written successful grants for his school, giving his students access to some of the best technology on the market today and he is one of the few city teachers who  has been celebrated in the newspapers (for adroitly retrieving the stolen iPhone of a colleague using online learning.).

And yet he is the typification of  persona non grata for the New York City Department of Education. In fact, some might say he is the persona non grata of the New York City Public Schools.

His name is Francesco Portelos. He's the Staten Island middle school teacher who televised himself from the rubber room back in October just to prove that the rubber rooms still exist (and that he was languishing in one of them). As of this writing, he has been there for 275 days (and counting!) 

In the almost full year since he has been taken out of his classroom, for what the department would only describe as "serious allegations", he has made himself famous, sued his employer for harassment and accused  his principal of misconduct.

And yet those "serious allegations" haven't amounted to much. Through numerous department investigations, he has not been found to have committed one act of employee misconduct (not one), and his Federal case, which accuses the department of violating federal whistle-blower law, has moved to its discovery phase -a clear indication that the presiding judge believes it to be a serious, evidence based allegation of employer harassment*.

And that principal accusation? It provided evidence that she had committed theft of services at the school.

For the record, Mr. Portelos has been formally under investigations by SCI  (the mere mention of which strikes fear into the heart of most DOE employees) over twenty times during the past 361 days (and counting!). And although the accusations against him keep rolling in, it must  be noted that not one of these accusations has yet to materialize into a substantiated charge (NYCDOE speak for a formal conclusion of employee misconduct).

In other words, they haven't found any infractions!

And yet each day, for almost a year, he has left his home in Staten Island and reported for work in a rubber room in south Queens, where he carries out his duties: Nothing. 

Sounds messy, doesn't it? 

Portelos' story might make more sense when set against the backdrop of the last twelve years of policy in New York City's education department. That's the backdrop of a long running chancellor who aimed to give the city's principals as much leeway as they needed as they ran their buildings and it is the backdrop of a mayor who has been obsessed placing the label of "bad" upon as many teachers as he possibly can, with the hope of ridding the system of them.

Against this backdrop, we can clearly see the unintended consequences of the policy, first championed by former Chancellor Joel Klein, of supporting principals.

It was partially that policy that helped to produce the type of  principal that Linda Hill, of IS 49 of Staten Island, is. She allegedly committed the corrupt act of "double dipping" (paying herself hourly overtime from one budget line, while doing the same thing for the other) and allegedly committed what many would say is the more corrupt act of misusing the department's investigative resources (resources intended to ensure employee compliance of rules) so that she could go after a subordinate who threatened her position of power within her school.

While the first act is pedestrian in nature (somewhat akin to punching in at your second job while you're still punched in at your first) many identify the second act -more akin to Senator McCarthy accusing Murrow of being a communist because Murrow's show had challenged him and made him angry- as being far more vicious and destructive, as it has no other intent but to destroy the professional by following the course of defaming the person.

The defaming of Francesco Portelos the person began in December, 2011, after Portelos the professional, a member of his School's Leadership Team, discovered that the principal had submitted a budget without the input or consent of the SLT. As a member of that group, Portelos was under the impression that the SLT helped decide things like the school's budget. He looked into the matter and discovered that two chancellor's regulations and state law had the same impression! So he decided to press the issue a bit. It was this pressing of the issue that lead to a rapid deterioration of what had previously been a good relationship between he and his principal  (and his AP and with his own UFT chapter leader, for that matter). 

One month after this incident, his principal expressed a sudden concern about his pedagogy and suspended his school-based email account. Two months after this incident, his spotless record had been spotted with no less than three disciplinary letters to file ("in ten days!") and he learned, for the first time that he was under the first (of what would later become twenty) SCI investigation. Three months after this incident, he had been handed his first ever U classroom observation report (for an observation that occurred during the very first period of his return after having served jury duty for one week).  Four months after this incident, he was removed from his duties and sent to the rubber room.

The policies begun under the former chancellor, along with the wishes of the mayor to get rid of "bad" teachers, has done more than its share to help produce a story like Portelos'. Taken together, they have led to a process called "Accuse and Remove": It's an unwritten policy, codified in small pieces through several "principal weekly" and other memos throughout the years whereby 'trouble makers', or colleagues who might otherwise be disagreeable of a building leader's actions or decisions are held up to a higher level of scrutiny than 'non trouble-makers' are when it comes to following the rules of the school system. As they are scrutinized, and as possible infractions are discovered, the city's investigators do their duty and investigate along the narrow parameters of whichever complaint has been made. Often, this involves removing the teacher from his or her regular duties as they go about this process. This has allowed the teacher to be labeled as "bad" as they are removed.

This policy may well have been needed eleven years ago when the mayor first took over an unsuccessful school system.  Anyone who knows anything about the BOE back then will tell you that there were quite a few bad teachers in the system in 2002. In the context of the aughts, it almost makes sense why people might line up behind the mayor for the chance to get rid of bad teachers. 

But now, after over a decade of aggressive enforcement of  the human resource policies that were re written in 2003 and again in 2007/08, the actions of professionals (like Ms. Hill), who almost clearly seem to be misusing the investigative process so that they can destroy other professionals (like Mr. Portelos) are becoming less and less easy to justify and the questions surrounding the ethical correctness of such actions are becoming less and less easy to escape.

In the twelve years since the mayor has controlled the city's school system the "Accuse and Remove" policy has been used against fabulous teachers, like David Pakter, a one time New York City "Teacher of the Year" (see here and here) and Jeff Kaufman, a beloved and inspiring teacher who managed to be highly effective in one of the most difficult environments anyone could imagine; Riker's Island (see here) (and for 'infractions' that hardly seem like infractions at all upon closer examination).

Certainly, as the years are winding down for 'the old man at City Hall', it has become clear that this policy hasn't. In fact, it has just recently helped to produce stories like Tiffany Webb -a successful high school guidance counselor who was fired because she had been a catalog model ten years before ever becoming a teacher- and Nicole Moreno-Liberman -a dean who was initially fined $7,000 for allowing an aggressive parent to leave a meeting with a note written on the back of a napkin. And it has most recently produced the story of one Francesco Portelos -a man who, even the investigators seem to agree (by way of the absence of their substantiation) has committed no misconduct.

"Accuse and Remove" is just one aspect of the "bad teacher" narrative that the MORE candidate for UFT President Julie Cavanagh has recently described as getting "really old" (see here). But it's important to note that, for teachers, "Accuse and Remove" is the most fear inspiring part of that narrative.

I asked Marc Epstein, the very brilliant Huffington Post columnist and occasional NY Post Op-Ed writer what the mayor's plan with regard to the general topic of Education may be for the his last year in office, as a way of wondering when this all might end. He simply responded by suggesting I read Hugh Trevor Rober's Hugh Trevor-Roper's "The Last Days of Hitler" (see here)*. 

I'm not so sure how well that portends for the next eleven months of Francesco Portelos' career, but it doesn't look good. Epstein describes the book being about all the jockeying that took place in 1945 to succeed Hitler, even as the Third Reich was collapsing in front of their very eyes (see here for a quick summary). As we see the mayor's term in office coming to an end, and his education legacy hype erode into what will eventually become his education legacy reality, it's probably a good idea to remind you of the many (many) people within the system who would just love to take up the mantle of teacher bashing and continue the unwritten policy of "Accuse and Remove". 

But I don't think any of those people could ever shame Francesco Portelos into silence. When his school email was suspended, Portelos (who legally owned the website upon which it functions) logged in and took his permissions back. When she expressed a sudden concern about his pedagogy (mind you, after he expressed concern about the school's finances), he called in an SCI complaint about her double dipping. When she dropped three letters in his file, he started to make the fallout from the 'tift' as public as possible. When he was removed and sent to the rubber room, he contacted the press, targeting for the first time not just Ms. Hill, but the policies of the department itself, then published an article about online learning and got himself elected chapter leader of his school and contacted the press again. And when they sent him to a new site and made him travel three boroughs away, he put himself up on Ustream (see here), grabbing the spotlight both for his cause and against department policies.

And he is working hard to make sure that we all keep hearing from him. He has recently begun his own internet based talk show called 'Don't Tread on Educators' and has produced an 'Educator's Survival Guide' with the intention of assisting any other city teacher who may go through what he is going through. This guy is facing (even seeking out) the cameras. And he's doing so with his back straight, his eyes narrowed and his heart full. He has at every turn, given the system as much of a black eye as it's given him and he has no intention of backing down anytime soon. Clearly, with his expertise in technology, his newly honed skill of communicating with the press and his philosophy (and slogan) of "Don't Tread on Me", he has thus far proven himself to be ready and willing to on take one whatever this system has to throw at him.

It's probably a good time to remind you about general Hannibal. He was the only man to ever beat the living crap of the Roman Army time and time again. While he occupied Italy for many years during the second Punic War, he never invaded Rome itself (hoping instead that the entire Roman Army would come out and face him). They never did, but while he waited (for almost sixteen years), it is said that mothers all across Italy, in an attempt to gain compliance from their children, would often utter the phrase Hannibal ad Portas, (meaning  'Hannibal is at the gates'). The scared children, who would do anything in order to avoid that from happening, were said to immediately become as compliant as any child should be. The phrase Hannibal ad Portas has since become associated with instilling strong sense of fear into people.

The "Accuse and Remove" process has the effect of instilling that same sense of fear into DOE employees. Normal teachers, who would do almost anything in order to avoid the sense of shame that is associated with being accused of something, then investigated and removed,  immediately become as compliant as any child should be, rather than speak up about things like budget concerns during SLT meetings. After all, if it could happen to a teacher of year, or one who was celebrated in the Post for retrieving a stolen iPhone, it could easily happen to them, too. In the present day NYCDOE, it can be said that the phrase of Hannibal ad Portas has been replaced with a simple question: You don't want the investigators to come. Do you? 

Only Francesco Portelos, with his track record of fighting back, has proven himself to be anything but normal and fear isn't something that keeps him quiet. Certainly someone in this scenario is at the gates. But if the 'powers that be' over at the DOE don't watch themselves, they soon may discover that's it's not them, but Francesco Portelos.

And boy, is this teacher -and parent- angry.

*See comments section for a possible different or larger perspective