THE BRONX — A year after threatening to fire thousands of teachers to save cash, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to dramatically boost pay for high-performing teachers while firing those who aren't up to snuff during a contentious State of the City address.
In the midst of a longstanding battle with the city’s teachers union over a new evaluation system, the mayor said he plans to give all city teachers who are rated “highly effective” two years in a row a $20,000 pay raise in an effort to retain the best talent. Teachers’ base pay has already increased 42 percent over the past 10 years, he said.
"Historically, teachers unions around the country have opposed rewarding great teaching through merit pay, but more and more teachers are asking 'Why?'" said the mayor, at the Morris High School campus in the Bronx, where he touted gains in student achievement while vowing additional reforms midway through his final term.
To attract the best teaching talent, Bloomberg outlined a plan to pay college graduates who finish in the “top tier” of their classes up to $25,000 toward their student loans if they promise to work for the city for a pre-determined length of time.
The proposals come as the city and union have been locked in a bitter fight over a new teacher evaluation system, which has already put millions in federal funding at risk.
While the two sides had agreed on the framework for evaluations to secure cash for 33 struggling schools, they failed to reach a final deal by a state-imposed deadline, drawing the State Commissioner's ire.
But the mayor said Thursday he has found a way to keep the money by sidestepping the union, in a move that left United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew seething.
Bloomberg argued that under state and federal law, the city has the right to start evaluating teachers now by forming "school-based committees" to weigh teachers' merit at the 33 schools where funding is at risk. Those committees could choose to fire up to half of schools’ faculties if they wish, he said.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said following the address that he had sent a letter to the state earlier Thursday formally announcing the city will go forward with its own evaluation plan by applying for a different kind of grant.
But Mulgrew slammed the move as illegal, arguing the city doesn't have the authority to change the rules.
"The mayor is living in a fantasy education world," Mulgrew told reporters after Bloomberg left the stage. "He can say whatever he wants to say in a speech. I'm telling you right now, that's not what's in the best interest of those children or those schools."
Mulgrew also panned the idea of merit-based pay for high-performing teachers, arguing it has "proven to be a failure for every school district it's been enacted in."
Aside from the controversial schools initiatives, the mayor drew praise from many in the audience as he announced his support for an increase in the state's minimum wage, which Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced he would pursue last week.
Bloomberg said the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is "slightly out of balance" with higher living costs for those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, and called for a "responsible" increase to balance the scales.
“Our city just cannot afford to wait for Washington. Not when it comes to illegal guns, not when it comes to climate change, not when it comes to creating jobs and not when it comes to raising the minimum wage," he said.
The endorsement comes despite the mayor's staunch opposition to the City Council's push to force developers who receive big city subsidies to pay their workers a so-called "living wage" substantially higher than the state minimum.
Bloomberg also announced a series of developments designed to boost employment in struggling neighborhoods, including an agreement to re-open the door to the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory.
In Manhattan, he proposed plans to bring more affordable housing to the Lower East Side through the development of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) along Delancey and Essex streets, and new repairs at the Randolph Houses in Central Harlem.
He also announced a new package of incentives to attract film and digital media companies to the blocks surrounding Grand Central Terminal, including building a new incubator space to help the city compete with Hollywood.
And while the mayor acknowledged that the fight over his beloved bike lanes has been "hot and heavy," he vowed to do more to enforce existing laws, including forcing delivery riders to wear clothing that clearly displays the name of the businesses they work for.
And after a year that saw the police department rocked by a major ticket-fixing scandal, the extent of which was first reported by DNAinfo, the mayor also promised increased staffing for the Commission to Combat Police Corruption.
"We don't tolerate misconduct or corruption anywhere," Bloomberg said. "We have the very highest standards for those we entrust to enforce the law."
Bloomberg also continued his push to make the city greener, pledging to double the amount of residential waste being diverted from landfills, and pledging to increase recycling in schools.
He also said the city will continue to explore the controversial idea of burning trash for energy — an idea many fear is unsafe.
The speech, which was praised by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and advocates for a higher minimum wage, also elicited criticism from some of Bloomberg's critics, including Manhattan Borough President and presumptive mayoral candidate Scott Stringer, who said the mayor's "lone-ranger approach" to education was counter-productive to improving schools.
"To come out charging and basically create a schism with the teachers is not an effective tactic," Stringer said.
City Comptroller John Liu, who is also eyeing a mayoral run despite a campaign finance scandal, said that while he supported many of the mayor's ideas, his approach to the teacher's union was "disheartening."
"He almost threw down the gauntlet against our teachers," said Liu, echoing Mulgrew's concerns that merit-based pay for teachers hasn't succeeded in many attempts.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has recently butted heads with the mayor, also praised Bloomberg's support for boosting minimum wage, but was vague on her assessment of his "very aggressive education proposal."
"The mayor clearly put pressure on the UFT in his speech and he wasn't bashful about that," she said.
As in previous years, Bloomberg began his address by starring in a parody video, this time name-dropping Lady Gaga, whom he smooched on New Year's in Times Square. He also chatted with former Mayor Ed Koch, who was among the dozens of current and former officials in the audience for the mayor's second-to-last State of the City address.