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Thompson and Bloomberg spar over their education records in first mayoral debate

Nothing the candidates said during tonight’s mayoral debate was more surprising than the Rev. Billy Talen’s spirited heckling, but a few choice comments were made about the city’s schools and mayoral control.

Right out of the gate, Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched into a list of comparisons between the Department of Education during the last eight years and the Board of Education during the time that Comptroller Bill Thompson was president. He recited graduation statistics, said that schools are safer today than they were in the 1990s, and boasted about test scores increases.

Thompson said it was ironic that Bloomberg was holding him accountable for the city’s schools when the mayor has repeatedly said that no one had control over the Board of Education.

He pointed out, under the old Board of Education, no one was in charge. The mayor, the board, the chancellor, so many people were in charge, no one was in charge, so it’s ironic that he would try and distort facts and information, try and change the past, to say that I was the person who was in charge of the Board of Education. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“If he believes nobody was in charge, why didn’t he try to get control?” the mayor shot back.

The bottom line is he did help us get mayoral control … we got mayoral control as much because when he ran it [the Board of Education], the schools were terrible, and the public and the legislature said no más. We’re going to finally fix the system and that’s how mayoral control got enacted.

Asked by NY1’s Dominic Carter, who moderated the debate, whether his tenure could be compared to Bloomberg’s, Thompson offered his clearest explanation yet of his BOE days.

“I didn’t run the school system,” he said. When Carter repeated the question, Thompson appeared to change tactics, saying that he “led a reform effort” at the Board of Education.

I helped to end decentralization, putting someone in charge for the first time in decades. I helped to move math scores up and increase reading scores. Did I do a good job? Is it a record that I am proud of? Yes. … The truth is if it wasn’t for the work that I did, mayoral control wouldn’t have happened.

“You don’t get a medal for rearranging the deck chairs on the Titantic, and that’s exactly what he did,” Bloomberg responded.

The Daily News’ Adam Lisberg asked the mayor about teachers’ salaries. ” In your time in office, teachers salaries have gone up 43 percent, and total education operating expenditures at the DOE have gone up 55 percent. Do you really think most parents would agree that the schools are 43 percent or 55 percent better?”

Bloomberg answered:

I don’t think that’s the measure because there’s inflation built in there, there’s the competitive factor, we have to pay our teachers what they can make elsewheres. After all, while they’re dedicated people and they want to help our children and they don’t go into public service to make a lot of money, they still have to pay the rent.

At the precise moment that the debate ended, Bloomberg’s campaign sent out a press release declaring that the mayor had won.