Mayor Michael Bloomberg, His Crystal Ball, and the Crisis of the Century

Mayor Michael Bloomberg knows quite a bit about money. After all, he's got more of it than just about anyone in New York City (and that's saying something). In fact, one of the supposed reasons he overturned the term limits law, twice affirmed by city voters, was that he alone had the financial know-how to manage the city through tough economic times.

With only that bold notion (and a hundred million of his personal dollars) Mayor Bloomberg went on to win a third term. Of course that wasn't the only selling point. Bloomberg proudly touted incredible test score gains, establishing that his "reforms" had helped city kids a great deal. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that the gains were an illusion, something Diane Ravitch had pointed out as early as 2007.

Now, financial genius Michael Bloomberg has yet another revelation for us. It appears that NYC's 3.1 billion dollar surplus is, in reality, a dire financial crisis. Mayor Bloomberg has polished up his crystal ball and determined that next year, there will be a 4.6 billion dollar deficit. Mayor Bloomberg opposes raising his own taxes, as said crystal ball has determined that businesses would flock to Utah if compelled to support their communities.  (Of course, the same crystal ball determined it was a fine idea to appoint a socialite with no apparent qualifications as chancellor of the largest school system in the country.)

The magical crystal ball also favored the no-bid contract that left small children waiting for buses in vain on the coldest day of the year. It seems to have told the mayor to be out of town while the rest of us tried to dig out from a crushing snowstorm. It brought us the multi-million dollar data systems that don't work very well. (In our school, we use something called Daedalus that's much cheaper and more practical.) And, of course, the crystal ball suggested the city take hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce class sizes (though they actually went up).

Now Mayor Bloomberg wants us to believe that the 3.1 billion dollar surplus is such a serious problem that he needs to lay off teachers. When incoming Chancellor Dennis Walcott came to our school, I asked him exactly how reducing the number of working teachers by almost ten percent would help NYC students. After all, the last time this happened, in the 1970s, it pretty much sent the system into crisis. Class sizes exploded. Teachers were involuntarily transferred, many taught out of license, and we lost many, many teachers who never came back. Could this really be a good idea, considering we already lose about half our teachers before they reach five years?

Walcott responded that it was important we keep our eyes on next year, and that we needed to make sure we not expend the entire deficit this year. I pointed out that the mayor estimated this move would save 369 million, a fraction of the surplus. Walcott spoke for a long time about how we had to make sure we kept our best teachers, essentially restating Bloomberg's mantra that we need to end seniority protections for working NYC teachers. Regrettably, he never responded to my question, and rushed away before I could follow up.

Mayor Bloomberg has made no secret of his feelings about teacher employment, going so far as to ask for an arbitrary and capricious standard for dismissing us. Thus I, along with the overwhelming majority of UFT members, question his motives in seeking legislation to change the standards for laying off teachers. In fact, like Governor Cuomo, I believe there is no need for layoffs at all.

What we have is a mayor used to getting his way. We've got a Board of Education (called the Panel for Educational Policy) on which Bloomberg appoints 8 of 13 members. Early in his tenure, the mayor demonstrated they would vote as he wished or else by firing several members who dared disagree with him. Now, with a surplus, we have him crying teachers must be fired, and it will be the end of the world if he doesn't get to pick precisely which teachers can be fired.

Perhaps some New Yorkers believe that a 3.1 billion dollar surplus is a crisis. Perhaps they believe it's too risky to devote about ten percent of that to save almost ten percent of the city's teachers.  Perhaps they even believe that class sizes will only rise by 1.5 students under such a scenario. They may even believe that Mayor Bloomberg's policy of closing and renaming schools, adding extra layers of administration and bureaucracy somehow helps kids.

Perhaps they're more sophisticated than I. The Department of Education's motto is "Children First." What that means, actually, is that working adults count for nothing. Long-term, this is unfortunate, as overwhelming numbers of public schools parents very much want their children to grow up and become working adults.

By firing thousands of their teachers, both Bloomberg and Walcott are telling 1.1 million kids that their needs are of little consequence either. Only 17 percent of New Yorkers thought Cathie Black was doing a good job.

If Bloomberg and Walcott muster the audacity to follow through with this plan, they could easily find themselves envying those stats.