Illustration by Roberto Parada

Something scary happened Saturday night—besides Halloween, that is: At midnight, the teachers-union contract expired. Thanks to state law forbidding it, there won’t be a strike or any other disruption of the public-school year. The real problem for the city at large is how the eventual new deal will be shaped by old politics, and what that bodes for Mike Bloomberg’s all-but-official third term as mayor.

Meetings to discuss the new contract have been under way for more than a month, alternating between the lower-Broadway offices of the United Federation of Teachers and the nearby Tweed Courthouse, headquarters of schools chancellor Joel Klein. The main issues are the eternal ones: money and work rules. Historically, those two things have been sufficient to make the negotiations contentious—especially since Bloomberg won mayoral control of the schools and began talking about busting up the sclerotic bureaucracy. Add in the election and the looming estimated $5 billion city-budget deficit, the discussion ought already to have been explosive. Yet there was hardly a peep from or about the teachers during the mayoral campaign.

It would be nice to think that the reason is the low-key maturity of the negotiators: for the union, its new president, Michael Mulgrew, and for the city, its longtime commissioner of labor relations, James Hanley. Instead, the calm could be a sign that the deal has been done since last spring.

That’s when Mulgrew’s predecessor, Randi Weingarten, gave her blessing to the renewal of mayoral control. The UFT retains great influence in Albany, and Weingarten’s support was crucial in getting the State Legislature’s approval. The question is what the teachers’ union received in return. Adding a few more parents to school advisory councils can’t have been enough.

It is illegal to swap political favors for a labor contract, and of course Bloomberg didn’t do such a grubby thing. But if there was an implicit bargain with the union—support of mayoral control in exchange for easy agreement on a new contract—then renewal would be an ironic victory for Bloomberg. “Then he can say he’s in control, but he’s in control of a constrained system,” says Tom Carroll, president of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability. “Klein keeps running up against the contract’s work rules.”

The mayor still has the opportunity to do something brave and important. Certainly New York’s public-school teachers deserve higher salaries (even after Bloomberg boosted them by 43 percent in his first two terms, which also in turn increased pension obligations) and their wonderful health-insurance deal (lifetime benefits with no premiums, which of course should be standard for private as well as public employees). The city, unfortunately, can’t afford it.

Bloomberg has made some headway in managing the schools more rationally, but he’s fallen short of true breakthroughs in work rules, preferring to make an end run by establishing more charter schools rather than confront the union over proposals like merit pay. In previous contracts, for instance, the mayor has compromised by giving extra money to improved schools as a whole rather than rewarding individual teachers. And he’s undercut Klein by not fighting for the power to fire the grossly incompetent. (Klein’s sometimes capricious use of the personnel tools already at his disposal hasn’t exactly helped the cause.)

Now the mayor would seem to be in perfect position to drive a hard bargain. He’s likely to have easily won a third term and promises he won’t be running for a fourth. Bloomberg’s reelection campaign was empty of imagination; he did, however, promise independence, the freedom that allows him to make decisions on the merits. It’s the quality that’s supposed to elevate him above the average politician. Last week, at the end of his second debate with Bill Thompson, Bloomberg starkly outlined the tough choices and shared sacrifices ahead, concluding with a dour line: “There’s no free lunch.” Quite true. But will there still be free health insurance?

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