Despite confronting a dire budget crisis, Mayor Bloomberg has been handed a golden opportunity to begin reforming the city's dysfunctional school system. In fact, the mayor now has the political leverage denied to his predecessor to dismantle the dysfunctional Board of Education while simultaneously freeing individual schools from restrictive union work rules and irrational bureaucratic regulations.
The key to achieving these goals lies in the city's current labor negotiations with the United Federation of Teachers.
Faced with former Mayor Giuliani's demands for merit pay and work rule reforms, the UFT's basic negotiating strategy was to wait for Giuliani's term to expire. All of the four Democratic mayoral candidates were so desperate for the union's endorsement that they promised the teachers huge pay raises (Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer topped the bidding at 30 percent) while demanding little in the way of school reform.
But the UFT's political calculations broke down after the 9/11 attacks on the city. Not only was there a new Republican mayor with no outstanding political debts payable to the union, but the city's treasury was empty.
This presents a huge dilemma for UFT President Randi Weingarten. Her 80,000 teachers have been without a contract for 16 months and are understandably restive. Yet she can hardly present her members with the same 9 percent raise over 27 months that Rudy Giuliani had already set aside in the budget and that Mayor Bloomberg insists is all the city can afford. To do so would be to admit the bankruptcy of her negotiating strategy - and endanger her own prospects for retaining the UFT presidency.
Aware of Weingarten's problem, Bloomberg is clearly pushing the union to endorse the broadly backed political effort to convince the state Legislature to eliminate the Board of Education and give control of the city's schools to the mayor.
Dangling in the air is a one-shot offer of $200 million in state aid from Gov. Pataki. The hints from the mayor's office are that the only way the union will get this extra money for salary increases above the budgeted 9 percent is if it uses its political clout with the Democratic leadership in the State Assembly in favor of mayoral control.
Bloomberg should stick to his guns, disregarding the union's complaint that he's bargaining in bad faith by holding the collective bargaining process hostage to the political issues of mayoral control. The real reason that the union doesn't want too much governance change is that it presently exerts inordinate influence within a politically fragmented system in which there are no clear lines of accountability.
In any event, no one can take the charge of mixing politics with contract negotiations seriously from a union that recently conducted a virtual auction involving pledges of city money by prospective mayoral candidates in exchange for a political endorsement.
If Mayor Bloomberg does gain control of the system, he will discover that the current teacher's contract remains a major obstacle to the productivity and excellence that he says he is looking to encourage in the schools.
The UFT contract now runs to over 200 small print pages. I call it the "we don't do windows" contract, because of the long list of essential tasks that school principals may no longer ask teachers to perform.
Teachers are not required to attend more than one staff meeting per month after school hours, to walk the children to a school bus, to patrol the hallways or the lunchroom or the schoolyard, to cover an extra class in an emergency, to attend a lunch-time staff meeting.
And principals can't require the staff to come in more than one day prior to the start of classes each September. As a result teachers, don't adequately plan for the new school year. Rookie teachers are often thrown into the trenches with absolutely no help or preparation.
Under the current contract, the principle of seniority always trumps excellence. In most of the city's schools, half of all vacant positions have to be posted and then filled by the teacher with the most number of years in the system. Similarly, in-school teaching assignments are made on the basis of seniority, not what's best for the children.
If this kind of labor contract had been enforced on Mr. Bloomberg's media enterprises, they would have gone bankrupt. Surely he must recognize that the enterprise of public education needs relief from the straitjacket of such debilitating work rules and from a pay scale in which every teacher gets the exact same pay scale.
The mayor should seize the present opportunity to get a new contract that encourages and rewards excellence and that penalizes incompetence. That kind of contract is worth spending extra city and state funds on.
Anything less will mean that mayoral control over the schools will turn out to be a pyrrhic victory.