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De Blasio’s Class House

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Then there’s the matter of failing schools. By the Bloomberg DOE’s count, 70 are in trouble, with a sizable fraction likely at risk of going out of business if the mayor were sticking around for a fourth term. De Blasio has promised a moratorium on school closures but hasn’t said much about how he’d improve the bad ones beyond providing them better “support.” Thirty-five new schools were approved to open in the fall of 2014. Some could be hopeful destinations for students whose old schools are struggling, even if they aren’t shut down under the new regime. De Blasio’s chancellor will need to determine fairly quickly if the plug is going to be pulled on the new schools that are ramping up.

Hovering over everything, though, is money. The teachers have been working without a new contract since 2009; the old one, according to the DOE, has provided annual raises of 3.6 percent on average in the years since, but United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew is looking for more and says he believes there’s $4 billion being paid to outside consultants that could instead go to his membership. Still, De Blasio has 151 other municipal unions he needs to negotiate with. And one crucial element of the UFT bargaining, at least when it comes to delivering higher-­quality instruction to kids, may revolve not around dollars but work rules. You are to be forgiven if you thought Governor Cuomo had resolved the impasse over teacher evaluations—the law establishing evaluations did indeed get passed, but the union still has the right to haggle over the all-important details of how teachers are assessed. Mulgrew and one of his old adversaries from the DOE, former deputy chancellor Eric Nadelstern, use the same three words to describe the situation: “It’s a mess.” Perhaps it’s no wonder that one of De Blasio’s top choices to become chancellor, who is currently a professor at Stanford, isn’t packing up to leave Palo Alto.

The yelling started pretty quickly. The parents of P.S. 107 in Park Slope knew the school had problems: Enrollment was down as more affluent families, particularly white ones, sent their kids to the more prestigious P.S. 321. Now, on a spring night in 2000, the district superintendent was threatening to send in special-ed programs to fill the empty seats. Some parents loudly accused him of mounting a “witch hunt” against the principal; because Viola Harper was black, the argument took on a tense racial subtext.

Then from the back of the room came a calm voice: “Folks, guys, parents—this is a time for you to come together. This is a really important time. You will have more strength and more impact if you stay together and figure out how you want to move forward from here, rather than come apart and start fighting with each other.” The tall, goateed man was a school-board member who’d won his first run for office only months earlier. It was a very early demonstration of De Blasio’s ability to read the strategic realities—Harper was irreversibly on her way out—and of his gift for consensus-building. Like almost all stories about the schools, the ending isn’t tidily happy: Tempers flared more over the next few months, even as De Blasio helped guide the parents toward the choice of a talented new principal. P.S. 107 improved greatly, but gentrification has homogenized its student mix. The new mayor’s greatest mission is narrowing the gap between New York’s two cities, so that Brownsville doesn’t just get the same standards as Park Slope but the same quality of government services. Picking a tough and nimble chancellor will be crucial. Even more important will be whether Bill de Blasio can take the talents for peacemaking and political maneuvering he displayed in that one school in his own backyard and scale them across five boroughs’ worth.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.


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