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New York City and its teachers union agreed this week to shut down what are disparagingly known as rubber rooms. They're the centers where suspended teachers, hundreds of them, are sent while being investigated for misconduct or incompetence.

Now, due to tenure, they can't be fired, and they can't return to the classroom until cleared. So some teachers have remained in limbo for years, doing nothing while still getting paid. But starting this fall, all that may change.

Beth Fertig of member station WNYC has our story.

Ms. BRANDI SCHEINER (Former Teacher): The first day we were re-assigned here, I fell. We have photographs.

BETH FERTIG: Brandi Scheiner points to the gravel path. She's a former elementary teacher. We're on our way to what looks like a compound of red trailers outside a high school. At least 120 teachers are assigned to these 11 trailers.

Ms. SCHEINER: When we got here, there was only two tables.

FERTIG: Scheiner looks around the fluorescent-lit room. She shows me clusters of desks and a bulletin board she decorated.

Ms. SCHEINER: So I set it up this way, you know, like the way you would set it up in a classroom.

FERTIG: The bulletin board looks like what you'd see in an elementary school, only it's covered with newspaper clippings instead of vocabulary words. Scheiner was suspended when her principal accused her of incompetence. She has spent more than two school years sitting in rubber rooms. She's 57 now and claims it was really a case of age discrimination.

Unidentified Man: How are you doing in retirement, kiddo?

Ms. SCHEINER: Well, it's an adjustment.

FERTIG: Scheiner qualified for a disability retirement this year because of an injured knee. So she's done with the rubber room and has just come back for a visit.

Ms. SCHEINER: You come here, and everybody's in the same situation, and if you've been in the rubber room a long enough time, when these new people came, we were able to calm them down because come here, they don't know why they're here, what is this place, what does it mean. So the old timers are able to say okay, relax. You know, here, play dominos, play cards, and we let them talk. Then we start explaining the process. There's no way out.

FERTIG: There is frustration, anger and even a sense of persecution among these rubber-room teachers. Those who spoke to me all claim they were sent here on trumped-up charges. The teachers say there are usually 20 people or more assigned to each trailer.

Ms. JULIANNE POLITO(ph) (Former Principal): And then we kind of routinely sit in the same seats.

FERTIG: Julianne Polito describes a typical day.

Ms. POLITO: People will move from that table so that they can play games at some point in the afternoon, and these because these are students' desks from a classroom, I mean, no one can sit there for eight hours, six hours. That's ridiculous.

FERTIG: Polito is a former principal who was demoted to teacher. She's been repeatedly sent to the rubber room on accusations of corporal punishment, allegations she strongly denies. And the city has never brought charges against her. She sets up her laptop computer while a man at another table reads a newspaper. He says his name is Dean Henry and that he taught special ed at a middle school until September. That was when he got his third unsatisfactory rating and was accused of incompetence.

Mr. DEAN HENRY: I would receive my charges, but I have yet to be contacted by a lawyer. So I really don't know when that's going to be. So I'm just sitting here waiting.

FERTIG: There hasn't been a hearing or anything?

Mr. HENRY: No, no, no hearing, nothing. You know, people are under the impression that we are here just lollygagging and just hanging out, but you know, the process is, it's a very uncomfortable one. And we really don't know how long it's going to take.

FERTIG: The deal struck by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration and the teachers' union should clear the rubber rooms by the end of December by speeding up the investigation and hearing process. There are currently 550 teachers and another 100 education department staffers sitting in them, at a cost to the city of more than $30 million a year.

For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.

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