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The Chancellor's Midterm Exam

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The day before the Democratic primary, Weingarten and I meet for lunch near City Hall. In private conversation, she comes across as a savvy operator with a keen political eye. But whether she is speaking on the record or off, her disdain for Klein is withering. “Joel sees teachers as cogs in a factory model, not professionals worthy of respect,” she says. Accusing him of trying to turn the schools into a “paramilitary system,” she contends that “his preferred mode is ‘No, sir! Yes, sir! How high, sir?’ ”

Weingarten believes that Klein is the main reason the contract negotiations have run aground. She believes that he is “anti-union”—his goal is to cripple the UFT. Klein loudly denies it, noting that his father was a member of the National Association of Letter Carriers and that as an attorney in Washington he represented organized labor. But though Klein refrains from criticizing Weingarten personally, he clearly considers the UFT an impediment to fixing the schools. And he makes no bones about regarding the contract he inherited as a disaster.

In force since 2002, but embodying decades of accreted stipulations, the contract is a 204-page tome (with 800 pages of side agreements) so byzantine it might have been written by Justinian. From Klein’s point of view, the main problems with it were these: The contract made it essentially impossible to fire incompetent teachers. It allowed seniority transfers, by which veteran teachers could bump new ones willy-nilly from their jobs. The contract forbade differential pay—higher salaries for better teachers or those in difficult subjects such as math or science. It prevented using carrots to lure talented teachers to low-performing schools or using sticks to keep bad teachers from drifting to them. “Mobility of manpower is the largest issue in education today,” Klein says. “It’s like we’re working in rice paddies—you just can’t move.”

In February 2004, Bloomberg and Klein opened the contract negotiations in incendiary fashion: They proposed tearing up the old magnum opus and replacing it with an eight-page pamphlet that codified Klein’s goals. Predictably, the UFT dismissed the proposal as “an insult.” With Bloomberg’s poll numbers worryingly low, his political advisers counseled him to take a softer line. In September, the administration removed its skeletal contract from the table; in October, Bloomberg escorted Weingarten to a Yankees playoff game. Suddenly, after all the Sturm und Drang, a deal seemed imminent.

“Klein sees teachers as cogs in a factory model,” says Weingarten. She accuses him of trying to turn the schools into a “paramilitary system.”

But it wasn’t. Behind the scenes, Klein was livid at what he saw as a monumental cave-in. Always more hawkish than the mayor, Klein wasn’t sure exactly where Bloomberg stood—but he decided to push back, and hard. (Weingarten would later spread a rumor that Klein threatened to quit, a story he calls “an outright lie.”)

Among those advocating compromise was the Partnership for New York City. “Business leaders are comfortable with tough decisions on their turf, but when they’re engaged in civic causes, they want everyone to be happy-shmappy,” Kathryn Wylde explains. “But Joel convinced everybody that he had to draw a line in the sand, that taking the politically palatable course wasn’t going to accomplish what was necessary.” In the end, Bloomberg agreed.

In April, at the request of the UFT, a state fact-finding panel was appointed to try to break what had become a bitter impasse. Five months later, it issued a report that was Solomonic from top to toe. Where the administration had proposed a meager 4 percent raise over three years and teachers had demanded 19, the report suggested 11. It endorsed pay-for-performance, but as a pilot program, and bonuses for “master teachers” in tough subjects. It recommended lengthening the school day, but not adding a full sixth period as the administration wanted, and requiring teachers to perform lunchroom duty and hallway patrol (an idea they find odious). But on the issue of making it easier to get rid of inept teachers—which the union had fought tooth and nail as an end to teacher tenure and an assault on due-process rights—the report gave Klein next to nothing. “That was probably the most disappointing,” he tells me later.

My lunch with Weingarten happens to take place minutes after she’s been handed a copy of the report. She immediately deems it a suitable foundation for a final deal. But Weingarten’s wheels are spinning about how enthusiastic she should be in her public comments. Sounding too positive would send the wrong message to Bloomberg and Klein, who might press for more concessions. But sounding too negative would cause her own people to go nuts, especially the militant faction. “The work-rule stuff aside, in all labor negotiations the key issues are always money and time,” one of her advisers tells me later. “We did well on the money, but some of the teachers are not going to be happy with working a longer day.”


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