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Artists Give N.Y. Mayor a Bad Rap on Teacher Pay

Education: At a large rally, hip-hop musicians blast Michael R. Bloomberg for failing to approve raises and proposing more cuts.

June 05, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — A coalition of America's leading hip-hop artists joined forces with New York City teachers Tuesday to protest $1 billion in budget cuts for the nation's largest public school system.

At a noisy City Hall rally, Hip-Hop Summit organizer Russell Simmons and a host of speakers blasted Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for failing to approve a pay raise for teachers, who have been working 18 months without a contract.

"Many of you don't have desks at school, many of you bring home Xeroxed papers to read instead of real textbooks because of budget cuts," Simmons told the crowd of several thousand people, most of them high school students who had been urged in radio spots to attend. "We're not here to play music for you today.... We're here to stand up for schools, teachers and kids."

Besides Simmons, celebrities included Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, P. Diddy, L.L. Cool J, Chuck D., Reverend Run, Erykah Badu and Big Tigger. Although the dais also included local ministers, community activists and New York city politicians, it was clear whom the swelling crowd had come to see.

"Jay-Z's the man!" high school senior James Washington said. "They're trying to cut schools, the budget. But we're going to win this thing."

The rally underscored a long-running feud between Bloomberg and the United Federation of Teachers over who should control the city's faltering public schools. The Republican mayor, who has been pressing state legislators to give him greater powers to run the schools, has withheld approval of a pay raise for teachers until the control issue is resolved.

Bloomberg declined to comment on Tuesday's rally except to say that he would be standing firm in his demands and his overall negotiating strategy. Although the mayor had been scheduled to submit his final budget proposal for the city's schools today, aides said that decision has been delayed.

"We're not going to negotiate a contract in the press," Bloomberg said, hours before the streets near City Hall began filling up with students, teachers and parents, many holding signs and placards. "I think real progress is being made, and I believe we'll get a contract that pays the teachers and also gives us more flexibility in trying to improve our public schools."

But state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a New York City Democrat and strong ally of the teachers union, has yet to sign off on a sweeping reorganization promoted by Bloomberg that would abolish the politically powerful board of education and give the mayor the power to hire all school district leaders.

A key disagreement is that the mayor wants to take total control of the school budgets away from city council members and state legislators. Silver also has insisted that Bloomberg promise to forego further budget cuts in the public schools unless the city faces a fiscal catastrophe.

Both sides reportedly are moving closer to agreement, although the complex deal still could fall apart in the coming weeks. If it is approved, Bloomberg would be the first New York mayor in more than 25 years to follow through on a campaign promise to take charge of the city's beleaguered public schools.

What he actually might be able to accomplish is debatable, given the city's $5-billion budget deficit. New York cut $450 million from schools in former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's final budget, and Bloomberg, citing a "doomsday scenario," has said he may now have to cut an additional $1 billion.

"How much more of this can we take?" asked UFT President Randi Weingarten, citing a litany of school woes. "How many of you have had a really good teacher leave because she couldn't put up with these conditions?" she asked the crowd. "This is all about your future."

Union officials are projecting that as many as 10,000 veteran teachers will quit the New York schools this year for better-paying suburban jobs. Bloomberg's threatened cuts would drive even more teachers away, creating a "brain drain" among qualified city educators, Weingarten added.

"There aren't enough books for our kids, and the schools are falling apart," said Jay-Z. "If you don't learn, you suffer. You have no future to live for."

For Alex Cross, a Bronx high school senior, the message of the rally was simple: "People are always saying we're the hope of the future. If that's true, how can you not have enough textbooks? How can you have classes that are too big? If we're the future, how can you allow this?"

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