by Jim Callaghan

Jun 5, 2008 3:59 PM

“In the Soviet Union, the government silenced dissidents by placing them in psychiatric institutions; in New York City, the Department of Education silences teachers by placing them in ‘rubber rooms.’ I am fortunate that students and teachers speak for me.”

— Michael Thomas

When teacher Michael Thomas reported irregularities in the grading of Regents exams and the way Title I funds were spent at his school, he never expected to find himself banished to a Temporary Reassignment Center, a “rubber room.”

He never expected the executive board of the school’s PTA to send a letter to every parent spreading a malicious rumor about him.

Thomas never thought that those executive board members would use the group’s name to smear his reputation as an exemplary teacher, one who is admired by students.

Principal David Jimenez has told some people at the school, the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, that he never saw the letter. He has told others that he did, in fact, see the letter. Two phone calls to his office by the New York Teacher were not returned. An e-mail message to Steve Koss, the president of the PTA, one of the signatories of the letter that tarnished Thomas, was not answered.

The good news for the beleaguered Thomas is that his colleagues understand the kangaroo-court mentality of Chancellor Joel Klein and his deputies and have rallied to his side, staging several demonstrations outside the school and writing letters on his behalf.

Nearly 50 teachers marched in front of the school on May 20 with signs that read: “Stop the insanity. Speaking truth to power should not be a removable offense,” and, “Stop interfering with union activities,” and, “Teachers have a right to due process. Close the rubber rooms.”

In addition, more than 500 students staged a protest over his abrupt transfer by walking out of their classes.

Thomas, a 19-year veteran of the school system who was selected as a Math for America teacher, served in the Peace Corps in Africa for three years. He has never had an Unsatisfactory rating. Students in his classes consistently received the highest scores on the Regents exams.

For the past two years, he has been trying to change the administration of Title I targeted assistance by the city and state. He claims that the policies prevented the school from spending all Title I funds and said that the school has lost $417,000 in federal funds.

Thomas said that Jimenez was a new principal in September 2007 and blames him for the loss of the funding, even though Thomas tried to tell him to use all Title I funds correctly.

Also, in October 2007, a math teacher just two months short of becoming tenured was given an U-rating by an assistant principal. Thomas claims Jimenez ordered the rating before the class was even taught. He wrote a letter protesting the rating and had it signed by tenured teachers in the department, which angered Jimenez.

Meanwhile, Jimenez — who allegedly took no action when informed of the scoring irregularities on the Regents exams — is still in the school, making decisions that adversely affect the lives of teachers. In this he is following the path of the principals at John F. Kennedy and Susan Wagner high schools: meting out retribution against teachers who reported problems with Regents.

In an attempt by Jimenez to get him off the DOE payroll, Thomas was ordered to undergo a psychological exam at the DOE Medical Bureau, which took place on May 1. According to Thomas, a doctor asked him to reply to allegations made by Jimenez. The only medical question the doctor asked was if he was “sleeping normally.”

Thomas hired a world-renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Alberto Goldwasser, to accompany him to the Medical Bureau, which found him medically fit to teach.

As a back-up to his psychological gambit, Jimenez invented new accusations, including accusing Thomas of “corporal punishment.” In Joel Klein’s world of due process, proof is not required to remove a teacher from the classroom.

On April 16, Thomas and three other teachers at the school wrote to the office of Richard Condon, the special commissioner of investigation, asking for a probe of misconduct by Jimenez and Charles Kwan, the assistant principal for mathematics. The teachers claim that Kwan ordered the re-grading of the January 2008 mathematics Regents but he said that “only certain papers” were “rescored.”

The PTA letter maligning Thomas drew a strong criticism from Chapter Leader Lise Hirschberg, who called it “an attempt to repress union actions and student protests regarding the reassignment of Mike Thomas.” She said it was “a biased and false account that could have calmed parents but instead inflamed students and defamed teachers. It is inconceivable that anyone would view the mailing as appropriate.”

At a minimum, Hirschberg said, “the chapter is expecting a retraction mailed to all parents. The administration and the PTA executive board must be held responsible.”

Hirschberg said the PTA board responded to the issue by “voting to remove the teachers from the PTA and block them from voting in their second attempt at an election of officers. The first election was invalidated.”

Thomas said he is “blessed to have the continued support of the teachers and students of Manhattan Center.” He said the last two months have been “extremely difficult, having endured three investigations, a psychological exam, the removal from my school after 19 years and a defamatory letter distributed by the PTA president.”

When he thinks of quitting, Thomas added, “My colleagues always convince me that this is a fight we must win together.”

The students, he said, “have seen through the lies of the administration and are trying to save the school they love,” adding that the school administration “is perceived as an occupying force, not as a part of the school community. Whatever the outcome of my case, the administration has already lost.”