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One Lawyer Equals 3,000 Reams Of Paper
Once, a long time ago, I spoke before the District 3 School Board in Manhattan to plead that it not retain a private lawyer when all the legal work a school district is legitimately entitled to is provided free by the citys corporation counsel. In spite of this, the district had allocated $10,000 to retain a Brooklyn law firm. This is standard technique with boards everywhere which seek legal advice to get rid of their "enemies." They either prefer to conceal this from the corporation counsel or fear such work might be rejected as illegitimate. One school board member had already consulted with these same attorneys on five separate occasions pursuing some private vendetta, then submitting bills for payment against the school funds of the district. Sometimes this is simply a way to toss a tip to friends.
My argument went as follows:
In order to emphasize the magnitude of the loss this waste of money would entailemblematic of dozens of similar wastes every yearI want to suggest some alternate uses for this money which will become impossible once its spent on a lawyer none of the kids needs. It would buy:
Three thousand reams of paper, 1,500,000 sheets. In September six of the schools in District 3 opened a school year without any paper at all. Letters from the principals of these schools to the school board, of which my wife has photocopies, will attest to this. It would buy enough chemicals and lab specimens to run the entire science program at I.S 44 and Joan of Arc, nearly 2,000 copies of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare as discounted by Barnes and Noble in hardcover, enough sewing machines and fabrication supplies to offer six modern dressmaking classes. In light of the fact New York Citys fashion industry is a major employer, it would seem a saner use of the funds. How many musical instruments, how much sports equipment, wood, ceramic materials, art supplies does $10,000 buy? The Urban Leagues "Children Teach Children" reading project could be put in the district, displacing armies of low-utility, $23-an-hour consultants. With $10,000 we could pay our own students $1-an-hourreceive better valueand see our money in the pockets of kids, not lawyers. Invested in stock or even 30-year treasury notes as a scholarship fund, this money would return in perpetuity enough interest yearly to pay a kids way through City University. The money in question would buy 50,000 pens. Eight computer installations. Two hundred winter coats for kids who are cold.
I concluded with two suggestions: first, a referendum among parents to find out whether they would prefer one of the options above or a lawyer; second, to buy 10,000 lottery tickets so we all could have a thrill out of this potlatch instead of the solitary thrill a Brooklyn lawyer would have banking our check.
Four years later, I appeared before the same school board, with the following somewhat darker statement:
On September 3, 1986, my teaching license, which I had held for 26 years, was terminated secretly while I was on medical leave of absence for degenerative arthritis. The arthritis was contracted by climbing 80 steps a day to the third floor for more than a yearat the express request of the co-directorswith a badly broken hip held together by three large screws.
Although papers for a medical leave of absence were signed and filed, these documents were destroyed at the district level, removed from central board medical offices. The current management apparently was instructed to deny papers had ever been filed, allowing the strange conclusion I had simply walked away from a quarter century of work and vanished.
The notice terminating my teaching license was sent to an address where I hadnt lived for twenty-two years. It was returned marked "not known at this address." This satisfied the boards contractual obligation to notify me of my imminent dismissal, however nominally.
When I returned to work from what I had no reason to assume wasnt an approved leave, I was informed by personnel that I no longer worked for District 3, and that I could not work anywhere because I no longer had a teaching license. This could only be reinstated if my building principal would testify he knew I had properly filed for leave. Since this would involve the individual in serious legal jeopardy, it isnt surprising my request for such a notice was ignored.
From September 1987 to April of 1988 my family was plunged into misery as I sought to clear my name. Although I had personal copies of my leave forms at the first hearing on this matter, my building principal and the district personnel officer both claimed their signatures on the photocopies were forgeries. My appeal was denied.
Just before the second hearing in March, a courageous payroll secretary swore before a public official that my leave extensions had always been on file at Lincoln, signed by school authorities. She testified that attempts had been made to have her surrender these copies, requests she refused. Production of her affidavit to this at my third hearing caused an eventual return of my license and all lost pay. At the moment of disclosure of that affidavit during a third grievance hearing, the female co-director shouted in an agitated voice, "The District doesnt want him back!"
I am asking for an investigation of this matter because my case is far from the only time this has happened in District 3. Indeed, all over New York this business is conducted so cynically that administrators violate basic canons of decency and actual law with impunity because they know the system will cover for them no matter how culpable their behavior.
No comment was ever forthcoming from that Board of Education. Two years after my restoration, I was named New York City Teacher of the Year. Two years after that, New York State Teacher of the Year. A year later, after addressing the Engineers Colloquium at NASA Space Center, invitations poured in to speak from every state in the union and from all over the world. But the damage my family had sustained carried lasting effects.
Yet I proved something important, I think. On looking back at the whole sorry tapestry of the system as it revealed itself layer by layer in my agony, what was most impressive wasnt its horrifying power to treat me and my family without conscience or compassion, but its incredible weakness in the face of opposition. Battling without allies for thirty years, far from home and family, without financial resources, with no place to look for help except my native wit, nor for courage except to principles learned as a boy in a working-class town on the Monongahela River, I was able to back the school creature into such a corner it was eventually driven to commit crimes to get free of me.
What that suggests is cause for great hope. A relative handful of people could change the course of schooling significantly by resisting the suffocating advance of centralization and standardization of children, by being imaginative and determined in their resistance, by exploiting manifold weaknesses in the institutions internal coherence: the disloyalty its own employees feel toward it. It took 150 years to build this apparatus; it wont quit breathing overnight. The formula is to take a deep breath, then select five smooth stones and let fly. The homeschoolers have already begun.
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