In the midst of the confusion surrounding the Denver Public Schools teachers' strike last October, Robert Feldstein of New York City found himself in the perfect spot: passing through town, teaching certificate in hand, with no qualms about crossing a picket line.
Feldstein even garnered his fifteen minutes of fame, briefly popping up on TV and radio and in a newspaper article as one of the few strikebreaking substitute teachers who would talk to the press.
Four months later, the strike is long over and the regular teachers have returned to their classrooms. But the strife's not over for Feldstein and DPS. The district refuses to pay him, he says. And he faces criminal charges of trespassing and disturbing the peace that arose from the dispute. "I worked for four days--I should have been paid $700," Feldstein says. "I haven't received a dime yet. All I've received is criminal complaints against me."
But Pia Smith, principal of East High School, says Feldstein is not just an innocent man who was wronged by the bureaucracy. "I think you're making a big mistake writing a story about this person," she says. "He's really dysfunctional. He's in very bad shape."
Feldstein, 38, happened upon the strike by accident. He says he was on his way back home to Brooklyn after competing in the Jackson Open chess tournament in Wyoming when he heard about the strike. The going rate for substitute teachers during the strike was $175 a day, compared with New York's regular rate of $96 a day. He had won $100 in the chess tournament, and he recalls thinking that an extra $175 a day for a few days in Denver would be a nice chunk of change.
Feldstein went to the DPS central office on October 10 to try to get a job. He got as far as James Forsyth, a retired DPS administrator who was helping the district screen would-be substitute teachers. Forsyth recalls that he took a "casual look" at Feldstein's background and paperwork and that "everything seemed to be in order." But Forsyth contends that he gave Feldstein the don't-call-us-we'll-call-you treatment.
"Academically, he seemed prepared for what he wanted to do," says Forsyth, "but his overall presence and demeanor during the interview was something that said this was not someone you wanted to work with your kids. I told him I didn't know what they would do or whether he would be placed or not."
Before the conversation ended, however, Feldstein asked for a list of school addresses. Forsyth says he had no idea that Feldstein "would all of a sudden take it upon himself to get a job."
But that's exactly what Feldstein did. "I can't assert that anyone at the central office hired me," he says. "No individual at the central office told me I was hired. I was hired by each of the four schools."
He got his jobs by showing up at the schools with his license in hand. He wound up working part of one day each at East High School, Baker Middle School, Thomas Jefferson High and Montbello High before officials at each school found out that he hadn't been approved by the DPS central office, he says.
At the end of the week, after his short tenure as a substitute, Feldstein launched his effort to get paid. He tried to "serve" East High principal Smith with a formal demand for payment, but she refused. "I told him that all payments must go through the central office," Smith recalls. But Feldstein insisted that she take his papers and even summoned police to help him.
Howard Bridges, an East High student who witnessed the October 14 confrontation, recalls Feldstein saying to Smith: "I'm gonna come back with cops, and they're gonna give you this. If you won't take it from me, you'll take it from them."
Smith says Feldstein "poked" her in the chest with the documents. When police arrived, Feldstein was cited.
Feldstein says he'll fight the charges all the way. His motion to dismiss the charges was rejected on January 23 in Denver District Court. So he's scheduled to return to Denver February 13 for trial. If found guilty, he could face a year in jail or $2,000 in fines.
He estimates that the cost of trips from New York to Denver and of his court action will top any fine he might have to pay. But to pay the fines for charges he says he didn't deserve is to admit wrongdoing, which could also affect his license to practice law. Feldstein is licensed by the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
"I'm very troubled by how often accused people who maintain their innocence feel that they have to plead guilty because the system is just too hard or because it's too inconvenient to go back to court," Feldstein says. "I think it's more important that people stand up for their rights."
That's all Feldstein says he was doing when, after his day at East High, he was approached by a KUSA-TV/Channel 9 news crew. Students had complained about the replacement teachers, because some were teaching classes out of their subject areas. Feldstein, a licensed social studies teacher, was handling a math class at East, he told the TV crew. The next day, the Denver Post reported that Feldstein had been "fired" for talking to reporters.
Feldstein says Smith "fired" him because he spoke to Channel 9. "We were kind enough to give you an assignment out of your licensed area, and you had to go and publicize it," he quotes Smith as saying.
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Smith denies saying that to Feldstein; she says Feldstein was never hired in the first place. "I didn't even know he had been interviewed by the media," Smith says. "The reason why he was not asked back here is because he had not followed the proper procedure [for being hired]. Plus, he was extremely odd."
Smith wouldn't elaborate, except to say that Feldstein came to school one day in pajamas. Feldstein, however, says he doesn't even own a pair of pajamas, and since he was only driving through Denver on his way home, he didn't have a lot to wear.
Feldstein predicts he'll get the charges dismissed and maybe even get paid. "I'm extremely confident about this," Feldstein says. "I just don't see a chance in the world the other way."
But Bridges, the East High student, says administrators also are confident. "Everybody at the school, like the administrators, they're not even worried about it in the least," says Bridges. "They're like, `Oh, that guy.'