The Next Educator-in-Chief: What Will the New Mayor Do With a $25 Billion Budget?


The numbers for the Education budget are in and, once again, they’re groundbreaking: In fiscal year 2014, City Hall will spend $25 billion–the most in New York City history–on a line item that takes up about a third of the overall city budget. But, with an election coming up, determining Bloomberg’s legacy–which here includes doubling the Education budget–will be permanently out of his hands. Naturally, this has spawned speculation of the next mayor’s move for the largest public school system (and budget) in the country. And, because of how this election is shaping up, the teachers’ union will be sitting at the table this time around.

The downtown throne seems to the Democrats’ to lose. Hence the poll numbers, the influx of cash and the media attention shifting toward the party that promises a progressive sequel to the Bloomberg years. Of course, it is only June. And politics is the most unpredictable force of human nature we’ve ever seen. But, for thematic purposes here, a hypothetical can be used sparingly.

Michael Mulgrew represents nearly 70,000 teachers as the head of the United Federation of Teachers and, come November, is promising a force of over 220,000 at the polls. And, for a primary that’s expecting 600,000 Democrats to show up to vote in December, that’s a number to be reckoned with. The candidates know that: Liu’s already pressing his DC37 endorsement, Weiner has promised an open-arms approach to the teachers and Quinn was reportedly outside of Mulgrew’s home the day after Sandy, waiting to help him with flooding.

In a piece entitled “Class Warfare: Teachers’ Union Boss Michael Mulgrew Claims He Can Crown the next Mayor” published yesterday, Observer senior writer Jill Colvin sat down with Mulgrew to explore that electoral notion from a constituency that hasn’t had a contract with City Hall in over five years. And, for the UFT chieftain, he’s confident that the teachers will make or break this election. “We’re not about picking a mayor,” Mulgrew told Colvin. “We’re about making a mayor, making the winner. And that’s what we’re gonna to do.”

This is a man who’s demanding $3 billion in back wages from the new Mayor while, at the same time, asking to end mayoral control – a provision that, after being renewed in 2009, will hand the winning candidate with the keys to the Department of Education to the end of 2014.

At an executive budget hearing in front of the Committee on Finance yesterday, Mulgrew, along with the firefighters union and DC37 reps, once again requested retroactive fees from the city in January and outlined DOE funding failures. “These are the kinds of problems we’ve seen over the past eleven years from this administration,” he said. “We’ve done good things working together with City Council… and we do think it’s important to reinstate the daycare slots” – another item that’s been on the Bloomberg chopping block for a few years now.

If the sway at the polls proves true in September’s primaries, the Democratic contender will be forced to respond positively to the unions’ demands, no matter how unrealistic, in a budgetary sense, they may be. None of the candidates are self-financing their campaign like Bloomberg did three times; therefore, they need all the support and money they can get, presumably aware of the blowback should they not deliver on their promises. With that being said, the participation of the labor force in deliberations will carve out new lines in the way Education dollars are spent.

As of now, the $25 billion allotted to the school system next year includes a new injection of $100 million to build 24 new charter schools. The drive for private sector involvement in the DOE has been a staple of the Bloomberg administration, much to the dismay of the UFT. But, as we’ve shown, that could all change. The same goes for the $165 million set aside for the new teacher evaluation plan – one that, as we unfortunately know, has been a point of serious, serious contention between the union and the city.

In terms of imperative, however, the most important focus here is the motive. As Doug Turetsky of the Independent Budget Office once told the Voice, “The Mayor has always said that education is a test of his mayoralty.” Since Day One, Bloomberg positioned himself as the educator-in-chief; someone who would make the DOE the magnum opus of his time in office. In his second inaugural address, in 2006, he called the children of New York City “our most important obligation” and has met that self-proclaimed passion with dollars. And, of course many would argue, one-sided, undemocratic approaches to what he thinks was and is right for the city’s schools.

For today’s candidates, that motive is a bit different. None of the contenders have placed the same emphasis on redefining what education in New York City means as Bloomberg. In turn, should they win in November, the Democrats will peg their decisions to electoral gains, losing a main driver of energy and focus that was present throughout the Bloomberg years.

So what will the next mayor do with a $25 billion education budget in 2014? Make sure it places them back in office four years down the road.