There was a moment during last Monday’s fateful City Hall showdown between the two Rudys when the chancellor, engulfed by his own and the mayor’s aides, asked for some private time with his onetime cigar-chomping, back-slapping friend. Giuliani, who has only in and out boxes in his head for people, rejected the overture: “I don’t have time,” he said.
That brush-off may have ended the best chance a million New York children had to avoid another year or more of turmoil at the top, much like the damaging days of 1994 and 1995 when Giuliani was so busy driving then chancellor Ray Cortines out of town that the largest school system in the world seemed to stand still.
We all remember what it was like when our grade-school homeroom teacher was sick and a substitute temporarily presided. Rudy Giuliani has already deposed three chancellors— Joe Fernandez, Cortines, and chancellor-for-a-day Daniel Domenech— as well as one Board of Ed president, Carol Gresser. He appears to think we get our substitute chancellors from office temps.
Now the chancellor he helped install three and a half years ago, whose praises he sang in reelection ads in 1997 and in his State of the City speech this January, is poised for months of petty punishment. An excruciating exit is likely, followed by an uncertain and time-consuming transition. Similarly, Bill Thompson, whose arrival as Board president in 1996 was engineered by City Hall, is up for reelection in July, and the new Giuliani Gang of Four, so reminiscent of the majority that evicted Fernandez in 1993 at Candidate Rudy’s urging, may already have their sights set on replacing him.
In a disciplined classroom, this much disruption would get anyone acting out so often such a long sentence on “the bad step” even Giuliani might hesitate to give in to his next tantrum compulsion.
To understand just how ugly the Rudy vs. Rudy scenario is for schools, look no further than the words of the mayor, as he roamed the City Council chamber four months ago, eloquently offering his annual assessment of the city:
“The present Board, the Chancellor, City Hall, and the whole operation works together better than I think it has in over a decade, going back to the period of Robert Wagner Jr. and Frank Macchiarola and Ed Koch, which probably was a period of time in which we really had the last sustained period of really good, solid, coherent working relationships. And we’re going to continue that….
“The reason that happened is because very good, strong personal relationships have developed, and an understanding that if we don’t figure out a way to get along then we hurt the kids. The history of this has been very bad.”
That was before our moody mayor decided that anyone who wasn’t for vouchers was a “left-wing ideologue,” forgetting that three short years ago he said himself that vouchers might cause “the collapse” of the city school system.
That was before our moody mayor decided that the Board’s capital construction plan, which he endorsed as “realistic” a few months ago, had to be gutted and redistributed to suit a probable Senate run that depends on votes from Staten Island and Queens.
That was before our moody mayor decided that a compromise school-governance bill he helped steer through the legislature in December 1996,
celebrating it then as a near-revolution in accountability, was suddenly so insufficient that the newly designed system still needed to be “blown up.”
That was before our moody mayor went on a daily rant reversing his January declarations that Crew had achieved change that was “absolutely remarkable,” and that New York’s system “is doing better, and educating more young people more effectively” than Chicago, where Giuliani is now reportedly conducting a chancellor search.
What better proof is there that when the two tabloids in New York are on your side, you can rewrite any story, flip any flop?
The mayor now gets mad at anyone who suggests that political ambitions might be prompting his mood swings on schools. Yet Jeb Bush, the king of vouchers who recently went from advocating them at a think tank to instituting them as Florida’s governor, is set to be the main speaker at Giuliani’s birthday fundraiser on May 25. And Staten Island’s share of the new school seats almost tripled under the mayor’s plan, meaning that the only Republican borough is getting 90 percent of its construction needs met, while no other borough exceeds 40 percent.
With potentially disastrous fourth-grade reading scores due on a new state test, the Senate or VP hopeful has magically repositioned himself in tabloid land, even after five and a half years at City Hall, as more critic than culprit.
Remember Giuliani’s campaign use of Crew in 1997? Remember Crew’s attack on Ruth Messinger’s first television commercial, denouncing it as “sordid duplicity” though it accurately depicted schools so overcrowded that classes were being conducted in bathrooms? Remember Crew’s press aide barring reporters from covering a Messinger event at a Queens school, though Giuliani had appeared in 15 over the prior year? Remember the mayor’s commercial featuring a mother thanking him for “fighting back to save our schools” and Giuliani answering that she should also thank “another Rudy, schools chancellor Rudy Crew”?
As useful as Crew was in 1997, however, is as useless as he’ll be in 2000, when the primary audience that matters to Giuliani is either a national Bush base, or a statewide, largely Catholic, constituency.
So Giuliani can now afford to appear incensed over the public letter Crew sent out blasting the mayor’s blow-up comments as “destructive,” even though the letter was virtually a carbon copy of the one he sent Messinger in ’97. “Your commercial denigrates my leadership,” Crew wrote then. “When you attack this system, when you portray our children inaccurately, then you will hear from me.” Giuliani loved him then, saying: “You create an unfair depiction of the system he’s running, he’s going to fight you.”
There is no question that Giuliani is capable of the crassest campaign use of the schools; the only question is, Will anyone besides Crew stand up to him now? Herb Berman, the City Council’s finance chair, told the Voice that “the mayor’s intervention” in shaping the new capital formula “was not appropriate,” adding that Giuliani “should be supporting the chancellor” on overcrowding. Berman said the allocations “shouldn’t be dealing with the one borough at the expense of other boroughs,” noting that Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx were “definitely suffering” under Giuliani’s plan and promising to take “whatever steps are necessary to obviate what took place.”
Even though Carol Gresser, the Queens representative and board president until 1996, had been an ally of an out-of-power Giuliani in the early ’90s, and aligned with him in the dumping of “rainbow curriculum” chancellor Joe Fernandez, he turned on her abruptly. While she vacationed in Maine, enjoying her newborn first grandchild, the mayor quietly put together the board votes to toss her.
He did the same to Daniel Domenech, summoning Staten Island board member Jerry Cammarata to a Saturday-afternoon chat at the mansion and inducing him to switch from the decisive vote for Domenech to the decisive vote against him. Without so much as a whisper of a public reason, Domenech became the system’s only 24-hour chancellor. Long before Gresser and Domenech, Giuliani had gay-bashed Cortines as “precious,” and used Fernandez as a lifestyle lefty, wrapping him around Dinkins before the ’93 campaign, and forcing his resignation. Through all of these wars, even the recent vote on the capital plan, Giuliani has claimed with a straight face that he doesn’t control the Board.
The one certainty about Giuliani’s latest schools ambush is that it has nothing to do with kids. Just like every prior Giuliani sortie in the direction of 110 Livingston, this one is about politics. It’s about putting himself, again, at the head of the class.
Research: Camila Gamboa, Coco McPherson, Kandea Mosley, Soo-Min Oh, Ron Zapata