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In an election focused on the city’s schools, Comptroller Bill Thompson years as president of the Board of Education have become a misunderstood talking point.

As the mayoral race heats up, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Comptroller Bill Thompson are butting heads over Thompson’s education record.

Thompson describes himself as a prescient reformer who, as president of the Board of Education, a position he held from 1996 to 2001, oversaw a higher test score increase than Bloomberg has as mayor.

In its first televised attack ad, which aired today, Bloomberg’s campaign calls Thompson a do-nothing bureaucrat who allowed a broken system to remain as it was. “When Thompson was president of the Board of Education, he ran the old system,” the ad says. “Dropout rates increased. Kids promoted even if they didn’t learn.”

The truth is far away from both of these poles. Interviews with people who worked with Thompson at the time and a review of newspaper articles from the period suggest that Thompson’s tenure at the Board of Education was neither innovative nor obstructive. It is better summarized by a story about a creamsicle.

In the 1990s, when Thompson was president of the board, a colleague with young children offered him a seat in his office and Thompson, accepting, unwittingly rested his arm in melted popsicle goo.

“I managed to get kids’ melted creamsicle popsicle crap all over his suit and he walked around like that all day,” said the colleague, who asked to remain anonymous because he still works in education. “He never got upset or went bonkers.” Instead, Thompson laughed off the sticky predicament, teased his co-worker, and in his typical unflappable manner, went back to work.

That was Thompson the manager, whom former board members, colleagues, and even political rivals from that era describe as “fair,” “conciliatory,” and possessing a “quiet leadership” that created a working majority on an often-fractious board.

“He tamed the board in a good way,” the former colleague said.

Yet those who praise Thompson as a calm leader stop short of saying he led a reform movement in the halls of 110 Livingston St., the old home of the Board of Education. As president of the board, they say, the structure of his job prevented him from doing more than strongly nudging the chancellor to propose one thing or another.

“The Board of Education acted as a policy approval body,” said James Vlasto, who was a spokesman for the board shortly before Thompson was appointed in 1994. “It didn’t initiate the policies. Basically, it was the chancellor that ran things and the board said, ‘Oh maybe you should amend this or that.'”

When Thompson did try to flex political muscle, he got mixed results.

According to Sy Fliegel, president of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public School Association, a nonprofit organization, when billionaire Carl Icahn wanted to open residential schools in the city, Thompson was interested but then-Chancellor Rudy Crew “was not wild about it.”

Thompson pushed Crew to take on the project and though the chancellor eventually came around, the schools never materialized, Fliegel said. He doesn’t blame Thompson, he said. “It was a different system.”

From Wall Street to Livingston St.

Thompson, 56, who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant and graduated from Midwood High School, was the son of a prominent Brooklyn politician and judge. After a stint as an investment banker on Wall Street, he was appointed to the Board of Education in 1994 by Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden. Years before, he had worked for Golden as his deputy.

The board was a territorial place. Of the seven members, two were appointed by the mayor and the remaining five were borough president appointees who often protected and defended their president’s pet projects.

In 1996, when board president Carol Gresser fell out of favor with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the board elected Thompson with Giuliani’s backing.

“His modus operandi was such that he was able to negotiate the various things that he wanted to get done,” said Sandra Lerner, who was the board’s Bronx appointee during Thompson’s presidency. Lerner said Thompson rallied the board members around the creation of the chancellor’s district.

Thompson proved a steady ally, but not to Giuliani. “Rudy Crew opposed us, and most of the time Thompson supported him,” said Herman Badillo, who was then a liaison between Giuliani and the board. Badillo, a strong Bloomberg supporter, said Thompson’s offense was that he didn’t push Crew forcefully enough on issues like school governance and ending social promotion.

“As far as I’m concerned, he failed,” Badillo said. “He only kept the structure that had been there before. He did not support any changes.”

Bloomberg and Thompson’s campaigns have traded testy press releases over who ended social promotion first.

In 1999, Thompson did vote for a measure that compelled students in grades 3-8 who had low test scores, poor grades, and abysmal attendance to attend summer school or repeat a grade. Yet by most accounts the rule was loosely enforced. The Daily News reported at the time that of the 63 percent of students who were promoted following summer school, only 42 percent passed the math and English tests.

It’s not clear whether anyone in New York has ever ended the practice. Bloomberg, who tightened retention policies, has been accused of promoting children to the next grade level even if they are academically behind.

Thompson has also claimed that he paved the way for mayoral control, referring to school governance reforms that the state legislature passed in 1996. According to several accounts, Thompson went to Albany and lobbied hard for the law, which was the first major step in re-centralizing the school system after community school boards were put in place in 1969.

The legislation stripped the 32 boards of the power to hire and fire principals and gave it to the superintendents. The boards could still nominate candidates for superintendent, but the chancellor could veto them, which Crew and his successor occasionally did. The law also gave the chancellor legal authority to dismiss board members who were ineffective or simply corrupt.

In 2002, when Bloomberg mounted a campaign to install mayoral control of schools, Thompson was ambivalent. He didn’t want the mayor to have absolute authority, he told the press, but he did want the chancellor to be a mayoral appointee, subject to the Board of Education’s approval.

The board’s most weighty responsibility was hiring and firing the chancellor. Asked what Thompson’s greatest accomplishment was, many cited his decision to go to war with Giuliani over the appointment of Crew’s successor. Giuliani’s choice for interim chancellor, Robert Kiley, was a former head of the MTA, but Thompson backed Harold Levy, a Citigroup executive and former member of the state Board of Regents.

“Bill flat out beat Giuliani at his own game,”  said a former colleague who had worked on the board’s staff. “From that position, that was very impressive. People say, ‘Well he doesn’t have fire in the belly,’ but that took fire in the belly. That was a risk.”

While Giuliani railed against Thompson in the city’s newspapers, Thompson defended the board’s choice which, in hindsight, is tinged with irony. Thompson now campaigns on the promise that he’ll name a chancellor who is an experienced educator. Levy was not. After he was voted in 4-3, Levy had to get a waiver from the state department of education, just as Chancellor Joel Klein did.

Limited Power

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PHOTO: Sarah Darville
Thompson and UFT President Randi Weingarten in 2008

Thompson’s campaign is not eager to defend or discuss those years.  When I called the campaign with questions about the policies Thompson had worked on as president of the board, a spokeswoman emailed over three documents.

“The attached memos should answer all of your questions,” she said.

The documents were a laundry list of attacks on Mayor Bloomberg’s education record. None of them mentioned Thompson’s tenure.

In the drifts of pro-Bloomberg fliers that wash up on doorsteps, the campaign holds Thompson responsible for graduation rates, test scores, and the number of school safety incident reports for the five years he was president of the board.

“When it mattered — not in the context of lofty campaign promises, but for more than half a decade when Mr. Thompson was in a position actually to make a difference for children — he simply did not and could not deliver,” said Chris Cerf, a policy adviser for Bloomberg’s reelection campaign.

“He was the elected board president and to say that all the problems that existed can’t be ascribed to him, that makes no sense,” Cerf said.

In a system Bloomberg has repeatedly faulted for its lack of accountability, it’s difficult to distinguish failures or successes that belonged solely to Thompson.

Many people who worked with Thompson at the time, among them Herman Badillo, say the lines of authority were less than clear.

“The fact was that nobody really had control of the school board,” Badillo said. “Nobody could really say they were in control.”

When the board voted against the city’s 2000-2001 budget after Giuliani cut millions of dollars from the board’s allocation, Thompson described the body as helpless to change the situation. “Several of us considered the mayor’s move illegal, so we refused to ratify the budget,” Thompson told the Daily News. “But it made no difference. The reality is the mayor controls the budget and the board’s vote on it is perfunctory.”

In 2001, Thompson left the board mid-term after the Conflicts of Interest Board ruled that he could not raise money to run for city comptroller while working as a top city employee. He landed in a heated campaign against Herbert Berman, a Brooklyn City Councilman who chaired the council’s finance committee and who blamed Thompson for a mysterious $2.8 million gap  in the School Construction Agency’s budget that year. When the Daily News endorsed Thompson, it said the missing capital spending money for schools was “not an easily forgivable sin for either candidate,” but “they were hardly the only ones responsible.”