The Magazine

The Mystery of
Michael Bloomberg

Why does a popular but mediocre mayor think he should run for president?

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By FRED SIEGEL and MICHAEL GOODWIN
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But the "reformed" school system led by Bloomberg's chancellor, Joel Klein, a former high-ranking Justice Department lawyer, has been more notable for administrative upheaval and noncompetitive contracts than higher test scores. Over the last five years--despite $4 billion in additional spending (the annual operating budget for education is now more than $16 billion and the city has a five-year, $10 billion education capital budget) and three harrowing reorganizations of the original "reform"--student performance has been basically flat. Reading scores in many elementary schools are up, but math scores in middle schools have declined. Graduation rates have inched up, but still barely 50 percent graduate in four years.

Bloomberg and Klein have lurched from their initial strong central control of the schools to a recent attempt at decentralization, both of which have sown confusion. Things began badly when they instituted a "progressive" education curriculum that had failed everywhere it was tried. More recently there has been a school bus fiasco: Roughly 7,000 students were left stranded in the dead of winter when a new routing plan imposed by an expensive consulting firm with a no-bid contract proved unworkable. Blasted by parents and critics, Bloomberg denounced them as know-nothings "who have no experience in doing anything." The parents, he snapped, just need to call 311, the all-purpose gripe-and-information line he established.

The imperiousness was striking, and it is often more than stylistic. Mild-mannered Democrat Bill Thompson, the city comptroller and former Board of Education president who plans to run for mayor in 2009, when Bloomberg will be forced out by term limits, complains that "I can't talk to the mayor about education," because Bloomberg sees criticism as either a front for the unions or as a personal attack on Klein.

Thompson had a sometimes rocky relationship with Giuliani but notes that while "Rudy could be a pain in the ass, . . . he really understood this stuff." Added Thompson: "If you asked for more money, he wanted to know exactly how it would be spent."

Giuliani, by legal training and temperament, was hands-on, sometimes to a fault, but he almost always knew enough about a topic to evaluate the advice he was given. Bloomberg, on the other hand, has never immersed himself in the details of either city government or education. He delegates responsibility to deputies like Klein, who himself has limited interest in budgetary and programmatic intricacies. "You ask Joel," explains Thompson, "where the money is going, and he'll say something like 'to improve reading scores.'" Asked whether he sees any real gain in schools under Bloomberg, Thompson says only that "the jury is still out."

Yet the public doesn't blame Bloomberg. He gets credit for trying to fix the schools, and Klein gets the blame when things go wrong. The pattern is similar with the NYPD. Bloomberg gets credit for keeping crime low, but when cops recently killed an unarmed black man in Queens in a hail of 50 bullets, activists demanded the scalp not of Bloomberg, but of the very successful police commissioner Ray Kelly.

Both cases illustrate how Bloomberg has managed the politics by greasing the usual skids. With the police shooting case, Bloomberg abandoned the cops, three of whom were later indicted and now await trial. Shortly after the shooting, the mayor said, "It sounds to me like excessive force was used" and deemed the incident "inexplicable" even before the details were known.

On schools, Bloomberg has neatly separated himself from Klein by handing out generous raises to the very teachers' union fighting Klein's reforms. The contract that runs through the end of his term provides cumulative hikes of nearly 41 percent. And while there have been modest productivity gains--30 minutes were added to the school day, meaning teachers must be in the schools all of 6 hours and 50 minutes--time- and money-wasting work rules and perks, all part of a 204-page contract that Klein tried to reduce to 8 pages, have survived largely intact. So while the unions detest Klein and openly urge he be fired, Bloomberg skates on by.

The managerial failures don't stop with the schools. Nearly six years after 9/11, the city has only begun to make real progress on Ground Zero in large part because it was never a Bloomberg priority. Like mob bosses, he and Gov. George Pataki divided up Manhattan--Pataki got downtown and Bloomberg focused on the far West Side of Midtown. In his first term, Bloomberg tried to succeed where Giuliani failed by building a football stadium there for the New York Jets, hoping then to use the stadium as the centerpiece of his plan to lure the Olympics to Gotham.