Schoolyard Fisticuffs: Mayor Bloomberg and Teachers Union President Michael Mulgrew Go to War Over Layoffs

One early morning about two weeks ago on the Upper East Side, Mayor Bloomberg sat down for coffee (black, no sugar) with Michael Mulgrew (a little cream, one sugar) to touch base and chat.

“I said, ‘Look what you’ve done. You’ve created this toxic environment where we can’t work,'” Mr. Mulgrew recalled. “His response was: ‘Things could be better.””

It’s not likely to improve anytime soon.

Mr. Mulgrew’s union, the United Federation of Teachers, is facing at least 4,666 layoffs in Mr. Bloomberg’s budget.

“Things are going to get worse between us,” Mr. Mulgrew told The Observer. “We’re not going to sit back and say, ‘Oh, poor us.'”

The relationship wasn’t supposed to end up like this.

Figures in New York’s education politics have always been lightening rods for protective parents, skeptical advocates and aspiring politicians. But recently, two key figures were replaced, offering the potential for a new era in New York’s education scene. Longtime UFT president Randi Weingarten left in June 2009 to lead the group’s national organization. In came Mr. Mulgrew, a former vocational school teacher with a carpentry background. A year later, Joel Klein left his position as the longest-serving New York schools chancellor, and he was replaced by Hearst Magazines publisher Cathie Black.

Both Mr. Mulgrew and Ms. Black are settling into their respective roles as Mr. Bloomberg rounds the corner on what he says will be his third and final term as mayor.

How could things not get better?

Easy.

Dried up federal surplus funding on top of Governor Cuomo’s insistence on breaking the state’s spending addiction are forcing New York City to trim expenses. After nine (soon to be 10) rounds of Programs to Eliminate the Gap, Mr. Bloomberg is demanding more fiscal restraint. And that’s putting him at odds with many of the city’s labor leaders, Mr. Mulgrew especially.

At the heart of the latest impasse between Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Mulgrew is the state law–known as last-in, first-out–mandating layoffs of public-school teachers in reverse order of seniority. To Mr. Bloomberg–a Wall Street entrepreneur who pays employees at his company bonuses for exemplary work and fines them for errors–the seniority-based dismissals are anathema.

“What do you do if you get somebody who’s been [teaching] a long time and either shouldn’t have gotten tenure or is no longer an effective teacher?” Mr. Bloomberg wondered Sunday afternoon during a KISS-FM radio interview. “Schools are run for the kids. What is best for the kids?”

Reasons for the breakdown in the relationship vary.

“I thought it was because of Joel Klein,” Mr. Mulgrew said. “I honestly did. But that’s not the case anymore. It’s just [Mr. Bloomberg] there and it’s become worse. … He has a whole new team around him. … Everything is carpet bomb and toxicity.

“Since I know Deputy Mayor Wolfson’s strategy is this when he runs a campaign, I’m assuming it’s his influence on [the mayor],” said Mr. Mulgrew.

Mr. Wolfson is of course the mayor’s hard-driving senior adviser, who notably fought against Barack Obama’s campaign long after Mr. Wolfson’s candidate, Hillary Clinton, seemed to abandon the 2008 Democratic primary. Mr. Wolfson declined to respond to Mr. Mulgrew’s comments.

But the tough-talking labor leader is far from a passive bystander in this showdown.

Elizabeth Green, an education reporter now working for the Web site Gotham Schools, said Mr. Mulgrew, unlike his predecessor, is not making important distinctions among administration officials.

“Bloomberg and Randi were tight and JOEL and Randi fought,” Ms. Green wrote in an email. The good-cop, bad-cop dynamics have been replaced, she continued, with “all bad-cop, bad-cop.”

For his part, Mr. Klein, the former schools chancellor, characterized the overall rhetoric coming from those who oppose changes to the seniority rules as “vacuous and insipid.”

“Nobody I know can say this is a good way to do it in terms of the way you would lay people off,” Mr. Klein told The Observer.

The tone of the union leader’s opposition to the mayor, however, has likely bolstered Mr. Mulgrew’s standing among his union.

While Mr. Bloomberg has asked state lawmakers for $600 million, he’s also advocating a change to the seniority rules. So far, the results are mixed. He’s likely to get some of the state money, though Governor Cuomo is advancing an evaluation system that the mayor believes is flawed, mainly for failing to address the problem in time to alter prospective layoffs.

Mr. Mulgrew, who supports Mr. Cuomo’s plan, consider the mayor’s approach a budgetary sleight of hand.

“The city has a $3 billion surplus. We don’t need to lay off any teachers,” a woman in a new television ad from the UFT says, citing the city’s own budget documents.

(Mr. Mulgrew said that he left a message on the mayor’s phone before the ad ran, warning “You’re not going to like it.”)

Mr. Bloomberg’s aides flatly deny the surplus claim, calling it a gross mischaracterization–if not an outright lie–and that the money Mr. Mulgrew referenced is already allocated for future budget-closing measures. Mr. Bloomberg’s aides also note that education spending under the mayor has grown, from $5.9 billion to $13.6 billion.

Even if Mr. Bloomberg gets his $600 million from Albany, the city will still have to lay off 4,666 teachers. And if that money doesn’t arrive, well, more pink slips would go out.

The wrestling match between Mr. Mulgrew and Mr. Bloomberg is not going unnoticed.

At a parade in Rockaway, Queens, this Saturday, Mr. Bloomberg was jeered by onlookers, many of whom told reporters on the scene that they were unhappy with the proposed layoffs. The New York Times reported explicatives and rude hand gestures.

The mayor, meanwhile, shrugged it off, telling reporters later it wasn’t so bad.

At a parade on Sunday in Sunnyside, the mayor’s companion, Diana Taylor, told The Observer, “Everyone that was yelling had a beer can in their hand and was smiling.”

apaybarah@observer.com

Schoolyard Fisticuffs: Mayor Bloomberg and Teachers Union President Michael Mulgrew Go to War Over Layoffs