innovator or obstructionist

On Thompson's Board of Ed days, both campaigns distort truth

picture-24
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

picture-4
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.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”