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Mike’s Managerial Missteps

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Many second terms are hobbled by an exodus of key staffers. Nearly all the major players from Bloomberg’s first term—Kelly, development czar Dan Doctoroff, political strategist Kevin Sheekey, schools chancellor Joel Klein, budget director Mark Page—have stayed on. The list includes Linda Gibbs, who crafted sweeping overhauls of the child-welfare and homeless-shelter systems that are turning out to have serious flaws. For the second term, Bloomberg promoted Gibbs to deputy mayor for health and human services.

There’s no sadder illustration of the administration’s managerial weaknesses than the crisis of homeless families. In 2004, with much fanfare and good intentions, Bloomberg announced a plan to reduce the homeless population by two-thirds in five years. Instead, while the population of homeless single adults has declined, the number of homeless families has soared. The situation has been worsened by a Bloomberg program called Housing Stability Plus, which shrank payments to families living in subsidized units. The Coalition for the Homeless, among other groups, warned that HSP would be counterproductive but claims it was ignored. “There’s no interest in considering the viewpoint of anyone who has real experience on these issues,” says Mary Brosnahan, the Coalition’s director. “It’s arrogance. The heart of what was so appealing about Bloomberg in his first term was the top-down, no-politics style. But that’s turned out to be the best and brightest behind closed doors with no reality check.”

Bloomberg’s personal popularity hasn’t been dented yet. One recent survey, however, should alarm him: a Quinnipiac poll showing New Yorkers, by a 58 to 31 margin, in favor of taking control of the schools away from the mayor and giving it back to the Board of Education.

It’s impossible to believe there’s real nostalgia for the chronically inept and corrupt Board of Ed. What the poll numbers reflect, however, is widespread dissatisfaction with Bloomberg’s changes. Parents have watched their kids benumbed by endless standardized testing, with little to show for it in actual learning. Now all the hassles inflicted during five years of upheaval have congealed around January’s chaotic changes in school-bus routes. That same month, Bloomberg announced another round of organizational overhauls for the school system, which he says will distribute school funding more equitably and give greater autonomy to principals. “This is a mayor who doesn’t sit back and avoid the tough issues,” Sheekey says. “These are big, important changes to make the schools better. And this system has been broken for a long time.” But the lack of stability has fueled frustration. John Fager, an education writer, public-school parent, and high-school teacher, supported mayoral control of the system when Bloomberg pushed for it in 2002. He’s disappointed by what Bloomberg has done with it. “People talk about Bloomberg bringing corporate-style management to the schools,” Fager says. “Well, any corporation that underwent three major restructurings in five years would be bankrupt. We’re at a moment where the opposition has reached a critical mass.”

Mayoral control must be renewed by the State Legislature in 2009. That’s one reason the administration has pressed the state Department of Education to agree with the city’s definition of high-school graduation rates: The city counts 58 percent of its high-school students as graduating on time; the state says the correct number is 43 percent. Neither figure should be considered a victory. But allowing the schools to fall back under the sway of entrenched interests would be disastrous, and the mayor needs any positive numbers he can get to back up his actions.

Some of Bloomberg’s big second-term ideas, like his environmental-sustainability plan, remain to be fleshed out, and could lift his administration out of its sideways slide. Bloomberg has more than two years left in City Hall, which would seem plenty of time to turn things around. But the real calendar is significantly shorter. The race to succeed Bloomberg is already under way, and it won’t be long until a candidate, pandering to the teachers union, suggests diluting mayoral control, risking a return to the bad old days when special interests dominated the schools. And if Bloomberg secretly harbors any dreams of running for president, he should feel an extra sense of urgency about halting the second-term malaise. The accelerated 2008 presidential-primary schedule means the ideal time for Bloomberg to jump in would be about a year from now. Maybe the country would love him. But instead of hailing Michael Bloomberg as the greatest mayor ever, the city would remember him as a one-term wonder.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.


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