Brooklyn, weeks earlier
THE LARGE MAN IN THE Brooks Brothers suit sitting in the back of the bar on Jay Street in Brooklyn nudged the nicely dressed younger man next to him. “There’s the bitch now.” He then rose from his seat and lifted his hand as the slightly stooped, elderly, gray-haired woman bundled against the cold in a long wool coat walked in the door.
She spotted him and grimaced as if she’d just smelled something rotten before she noticed the young man. A look of pain and sorrow crossed her face, but when he couldn’t look her in the eyes, she took a deep breath and let it out with the shake of her head. Her mouth was set in a firm, hard line as she navigated through the other patrons to their table.
When she arrived, the older of the two men stuck out his hand, but she ignored it and turned toward his younger companion. “I can’t say I approve of the company you keep these days, Micah, but it is nice to see you,” she said as she sat down.
“It’s good to see you, too, Rose,” Micah Gallo replied quietly.
A waitress strolled over and Rose Lubinsky asked for a glass of water. Shrugging, the older man tapped the rim of his highball glass to indicate that he wanted another Old Forester bourbon. Pricey stuff, but the president of the largest teachers union in New York State, with his quarter-of-a-million-dollar salary and under-the-table perks, could afford it.
Despite his expensive tastes in clothes, cars, women, and bourbon, Thomas “Tommy” Monroe came from the old Irish-Italian neighborhood of Bensonhurst, the son of a schoolteacher mom and a truck-driving father. A big guy, he’d played football for a second-tier college team until he got kicked off the squad for fighting with his teammates and coaches, and then walking out on an “anger management” class he’d been ordered to attend if he wanted to stay. Following an “incident” in which he’d been accused of raping a coed at a fraternity party, he’d then been invited to leave the college altogether and had to finish his degree and get his teacher’s certificate at a small liberal arts college in New Jersey that didn’t care about his character as long as he paid his tuition.
After graduation, he took a job as a PE teacher and wrestling coach at Public School 238 in Brooklyn but found his true calling working for the Greater New York Teachers Federation. Like all other public school teachers, he’d had to sign up with the union when he first got hired—there was no choice in the matter and dues were automatically taken out of his paycheck. But as the son of a teamster and a proud member of the teachers union, he’d been fine with it and soon found out that his penchant for cracking heads and kicking asses on behalf of the GNYTF was useful to the hierarchy. He could turn on the macho charm when necessary, but it was his ruthlessness and street smarts that helped him climb the union power ladder and eventually got him elected president.
That had been twenty years ago and now in his early sixties, the former athlete had gone to seed. His ruddy Irish face and red nose belied his affection for booze and the good life, as did the beer belly that hung over the top of his expensive, tailored pants. And he’d long since lost his sense of duty to union members, except as pawns to manipulate in order to stay in power and fund his lifestyle.
“Whatever works” was his motto when dealing with opponents, both those inside the union—including reform-minded individuals—and those on the outside. One of the most tenacious of the latter, and the reason for this meeting with Rose Lubinsky, were the proponents of charter schools. The charter school movement in New York got its start in 1998, and after being held in check—mainly due to union lobbying—for ten years, had been expanding ever since thanks in large part to Lubinsky, the president of the New York Charter Schools Association and the heart and soul of the movement. Limited to a hundred schools in that first decade, there were four times that number now and a serious threat to the union and thus to Monroe.
The reasons were simple. First of all, the charter schools, although public and taxpayer-funded, were nonunion. This diluted the power of the traditional large teachers unions like the GNYTF to control education in New York State. And every one of those nonunion teachers represented a loss in union dues. Fewer bucks meant losing political clout by curtailing lobbying, or outright buying of, politicians and the leaders of the union-funded, anti-charter parent groups. It also meant less money for the union president’s salary and bonuses, as well as the hidden slush fund available for his “expenses.”
For the first time in years, Monroe felt his position as union president was being threatened by increasingly unhappy members. Every student sitting in a charter schoolroom instead of the union-dominated public school rolls meant less money from the state and federal governments which based their financial support on enrollment. Losing funding affected raises and bonuses for union teachers, too. However, the members’ dissatisfaction was as much about working conditions as it was money. Public school classes were overcrowded, filled with indifferent and even hostile students, and lacked any support from most of the parents.
Charter schools were a different story with a combination of better or equal pay, safer working conditions, students who wanted to learn, and administrations that by and large saw themselves as partners with their faculty. The best teachers, as well as the more dedicated students, were leaving the public schools as fast as they could find an opening with a charter school. Only the limited number of positions available kept the desertions from becoming an all-out stampede.
Meanwhile, union members were openly questioning if Monroe was losing his grip. Meetings were becoming increasingly contentious, and his spies reported teachers grumbling about his ostentatious lifestyle; his reform-minded union opponents were gaining ground.
Since the beginning, Monroe had fought the charter school movement tooth and nail. Fear had been a major tactic, telling teachers that charter schools were a threat to the union, and without the union to protect them, all the benefits like pensions, health coverage, and wages they’d won over the years would be lost. Using a public relations firm, and aided by a compliant media, he mislabeled charter schools “elitist,” especially in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, claiming that they were a conservative white man’s conspiracy to remove the best and brightest from the “?’hood” and leave everyone else to suffer. It didn’t matter to his public relations spiel that charter school enrollment was predominantly from minority neighborhoods. “Divide and conquer” was the purpose behind “racist” charter schools, he claimed, and that played well with his core constituency.
If words and fear didn’t work, he fell back on payoffs and intimidation, including physical attacks and character assassination. A few years earlier, he’d employed such against one particularly difficult opponent, the man now sitting next to him, Micah Gallo, at the time a young, energetic Hispanic who had started the first charter school in Brooklyn for low-income, disadvantaged children.
Gallo had grown up in that neighborhood, had even been the leader of a gang. But he survived the public schools and after graduating from a teachers college had quickly signed on with Lubinsky and the charter school association, which helped him launch the Bedford-Stuyvesant Charter School. The school had been a resounding success. Although its teachers were initially paid less than union teachers in the public schools, their working conditions were far superior, even though they’d had to share space with a public school, and soon the students’ test scores outstripped their public school counterparts by large margins.
Monroe felt the tide turning against him and the union when The New York Times published a big feature story on Gallo and his school, comparing it favorably to the public schools in the five boroughs. When the story came out, and then was picked up by local television stations, Monroe took a lot of heat from union teachers and parents. It had made them look bad, they said, and they wanted to know why he’d been unable to counter. This time they weren’t so accepting of his promises to quash the charter school movement, and his attempts to get his pals in the media to back him met with shrugs and noncommittal responses.
Monroe decided that it was time to eliminate the competition and started by trying to buy Gallo. He offered him the position of assistant superintendent of the Greater New York school system at a salary many times what he made at the charter school with broad hints of there being more where that came from. The young man turned him down and threatened to go to the press if he tried to bribe him again.
So he reverted to his more base nature. He arranged for die-hard union supporters to try to intimidate Gallo by lurking outside the school and following him home. They punctured his tires and scratched the paint on his car. When that didn’t work, a “specialist” was called in; in the dead of night, Gallo’s car was firebombed.
Instead of chasing Gallo off, however, the bombing backfired. Charter school parents started escorting him to and from work and watched his neighborhood. An even more in-depth article appeared in a weekly alternative newspaper, The West Village Spectator, written by investigative journalist Ariadne Stupenagel. The article and citizen complaints put the pressure on the police to step up patrols and get serious about trying to catch his antagonists. Even Monroe’s ties to the police union reps did him no good; in fact, he was warned that if something bad happened to Gallo all bets were off.
Gallo weathered the storm, though not without damage. Monroe’s spies reported that he didn’t appear to be sleeping well and dark circles had appeared below his eyes. “He seems tense, like another good shove and he might break,” one said. But he refused to give in, and Monroe looked for the proverbial last straw. Alas, Olivia Stone, his longtime partner in crime, provided it.
Stone, the former attorney for the teachers union, had high aspirations. With the financial and “get the vote out” backing of the union, Stone had campaigned for and been elected district attorney of Kings County, which encompassed all of the two million–plus residents of Brooklyn. She was unqualified for the job, having spent a few years in the Legal Aid Society Office before following the money to the teachers union. However, the incumbent district attorney’s campaign had been torpedoed by scandal—an alleged affair with a stripper from the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn—two weeks before the election. Of course, Monroe’s political operatives created and disseminated the faux rumored affair. By the time the incumbent had dispelled the false allegations, the smear tactic had worked; he was out of office and Stone was in.
It was real handy to have the DA of Kings County to help deal with problems, such as Micah Gallo. They’d concocted a plan to finish the job that Monroe had started. When one of Monroe’s spies told him that Gallo sometimes took his school laptop computer home with him, they knew they had what they needed.
Gallo’s school was actually located in a portion of one of Brooklyn’s shuttered public high schools. As charter schools were still tax-supported and the equipment inside the schools was owned by the public, technically, taking the laptop to his residence—even if for work purposes—was illegally removing school property.
A cooperative police detective took an anonymous complaint from a “concerned source” that school equipment had been disappearing and that Gallo was suspected of selling it off and lining his own pockets with the proceeds. Stone secured a search warrant from a union-supported judge and the police raided Gallo’s home where not only was the “stolen school property” laptop located but also several other pieces of equipment.
Of course, it was all a big setup. Teachers and administrators routinely took work-related material and equipment home. The additional “public school equipment” was planted. Gallo was arrested.
This time Monroe’s lackeys in the press were only too happy to jump all over the story. The former gangbanger-turned-heroic-educator’s fall from grace was just too good a scandal. A little bird had even tipped off a photographer for the New York Post so that there was a perp photo on page three of Gallo being led from his home in handcuffs.
Monroe at first declined to comment on “the unfortunate situation.” But when pressed for a quote, he “reluctantly” acknowledged that “the lack of oversight and supervision” at charter schools was one of the “major drawbacks. They sort of operate under their own rules even with taxpayer money.”
Gallo still had his supporters in the media, including Stupenagel, who wrote a scathing piece about the “politically motivated attack on charter schools by drumming up a ridiculous charge against one of the charter schools movement’s bright young stars.” The reporter noted the connection between Monroe and Stone and accused the two of “colluding in order to preserve the union’s power and influence.”
Monroe denied any involvement in Gallo’s troubles. However, Stone shot back at the critics in media interviews by noting “we don’t make the laws; we are charged with enforcing them and prosecuting those who break them. We believe, and the grand jury agreed, that there is sufficient evidence indicating that Mr. Gallo broke the law, stole equipment owned by the taxpayers, and needs to answer for that. However, we will try this case in court, not the media.”
Gallo had his other supporters, too, chief among them Rose Lubinsky. She had taken the fight to the media, some of which questioned the motives behind Stone’s prosecution of Gallo. The district attorney took a lot of heat, but she didn’t cave. She knew the power and money she craved relied on the support from the teachers union. Stone and Monroe were determined to create a chilling effect on other charter supporters by prosecuting and breaking Gallo.
Besides, Monroe thought, if Stone backed off, Gallo would have become the darling of the media and Stone would have taken a major political hit. By sticking to her “we don’t make the laws” mantra and going forward with the charges against Gallo she could attack the charter school system and argue that she had no choice but to follow up on the case presented to her by the police.
Unfortunately for Gallo, neither he nor the charter system was insured for this sort of legal battle. Determined to save his freedom and reputation against the false charges, he spent his life savings and mortgaged his home. The school was forced to close.
Told that Gallo was desperate, Monroe arranged a meeting. He told the young man that not only could he make the charges go away, but “I like your spunk, kid” and that he would hire him as his personal aide. It was a lifeline thrown by the devil, but Gallo grabbed it.
In the few years since, Gallo had sealed the deal by becoming the union’s chief anti-charter school advocate. Of course, he knew where the warts were in the charter system and how best to attack the public’s perception of its schools. He’d become such a vocal opponent of “elitist, racist” charter schools that Monroe sometimes wondered if the young man truly believed what he was saying.
Broken psychologically, financially, and physically, Gallo had taken to the hefty union salary and “perks” like a newborn to his mother’s breast. The young man with the cool car, tailored suits, and a 3,000-square-foot condo in Brooklyn Heights looking out over the East River at the Manhattan skyline seemed a different character altogether from the fiery crusader for education reform and charter schools.
However, Monroe’s strategic conversion of Gallo had not destroyed the charter school movement. Indeed, those in the association had circled the wagons and then led by Rose Lubinsky had become even more cohesive and determined. Also a leader in the New York City Jewish community, Lubinsky was beyond reproach and there was not going to be any going after her on trumped-up charges. Not in Manhattan where New York County DA Roger “Butch” Karp was impervious to outside pressure.
Lubinsky rightfully blamed Monroe and Stone for her protégé’s downfall. A brilliant strategist, she had built her political, financial, and academic bona fides upon the charter schools’ quantified academic success. Their statewide reading and math test scores embarrassingly overwhelmed its failing public school counterparts. Her efforts were about to finally culminate in a bill currently before the New York legislature that would not only increase state funding for charter schools but also increase its numbers, as well as implement a voucher system allowing school parents to place their children in success-driven schools and avoid dangerous and underperforming public schools.
Under Monroe’s direction, the union and its backers had attacked the proposed legislation, throwing money at politicians, advertising agencies, and “pay-as-you-go” protesters who assembled outside Albany’s capitol building to wave their signs and shout slogans that Monroe’s hired public relations firm dreamed up. However, his lobbyists had just that morning told him that public sentiment in favor of charter schools and vouchers was running at such a high level that even the greediest of Albany’s corrupt public servants were running scared.
Demonstrators in favor of the charter school legislation were petitioning Albany’s legislators in overwhelming numbers. Already, there were in excess of fifty thousand students on charter school waiting lists. Guided by Lubinsky, the New York Charter Schools Association had launched an adroit advertising campaign that was long on the facts reflecting academic achievement and devoid of contentious mudslinging. Several of the charter school ads struck a note of conciliation in an effort to appeal to the reform-minded members of the union as “partners in our children’s education.” And that alone, according to Monroe’s political advisers, was enough to cause a seismic shift beneath the power-structure of the union and his position in it.
Something had to be done and that was why Rose Lubinsky was sitting across from him at the Jay Street Bar and why he’d brought Gallo along hoping that the young man might appeal to her emotionally. But in body language and tone she obviously didn’t want to be there.
“Need another beer, Micah?” he asked.
“No, I’m good, thanks,” Gallo replied, still not looking at his former mentor.
“Suit yourself,” Monroe said before turning his attention back to Lubinsky. “I hear congratulations are in order . . . you have a book coming out about your life?”
“That’s right, but I’m not here to socialize, Monroe,” Lubinsky said, her voice hard and clipped, which brought out the slight accent of her native Poland.
Monroe smiled though he personally loathed and feared the woman. He spread his hands. “I was hoping we might reach an accommodation on the assembly bill,” he said.
“The New York Charter School Fairness in Education Act you mean,” Lubinsky said without humor.
“Yeah, that one.”
“Accommodation,” Lubinsky snorted derisively. “You mean you’re going down in flames and trying to save your bacon.”
Monroe’s smile disappeared. “It’s going to be a hard fight either way, and in the meantime a lot of money is being tossed around that would be better off spent on students and teachers’ salaries.”
This time, Lubinsky laughed so hard that tears sprang to her eyes. “Tommy Monroe, that’s a rich one,” she said when she was able to pull herself together. “As if that has ever been your priority.” She leaned across the table and glared. “Public schools in the five boroughs are all but war zones, Monroe. Even metal detectors don’t deter the violence and threats. Teachers and students who want an education are caught in the crossfire, and what have you done about it, except line your pockets with union dues.”
Lubinsky glanced over at Gallo, who blinked twice and looked away. “When I started as a schoolteacher,” she continued, “I was all for the union. Someone needed to stand up for better wages and working conditions. We needed tenure to make sure the politicos weren’t firing teachers or censoring those who didn’t agree with them. But somewhere along the line, the union lost its way. Guys like you took over and created your own little fiefdoms and dropped the ball for the students and the good teachers. Now you can’t get rid of bad teachers, not without a lot of money and time; even if you can get them out of the classroom, they’re put into your ‘rubber rooms,’ where they hang out on the computer and run their own businesses or chat on Facebook, all on the taxpayer’s dime. But just for another good laugh, tell me about this ‘accommodation’ you’re offering.”
All semblance of friendliness left Monroe’s face. He sat back in his chair and drained the remaining bourbon left in his glass. He then waved for the waitress to bring him another shot.
“You get the bill withdrawn,” he said, “and we both announce a joint committee to study how the public school system and charter schools can work together toward a mutual goal of providing a good education to all children. We meet and hammer out a compromise we can all live with, and next year, the union won’t oppose the legislation; hell, we might even cosponsor it with you. It would be a win-win all the way around, isn’t that right, Micah.”
At the mention of his name, Gallo picked up his head and looked Lubinsky in the eyes for the first time. “Everybody can’t go to charter schools, Rose,” he said quietly. “If this bill goes through, it will hurt all those kids who attend public schools.”
Looking at her former protégé Lubinsky shook her head. “So keep the status quo, Micah? The system you had to fight and claw your way out of?” She tilted her head and smiled tightly. “So that fat cats like this man you’ve allied yourself with can live the good life while public schools swirl down the drain, taking all those kids with them? We offer a chance for the kids to capture the dream and, yes, hope, Micah, and the possibility of change. I can’t believe I’m hearing this from you of all people.”
Lubinsky turned back to Monroe. “Perhaps if you’d suggested this compromise years ago instead of protecting your little fiefdom, and ruining lives and careers along the way, I might have trusted you,” she said. “Even now I’d possibly consider it for the sake of the children if I had any reason to believe that you’d honor your word. But I don’t. You’re a bully and as far as I’m concerned a criminal; now you’re just trying to stall this legislation and hope it goes away. You’ve failed the kids, you’ve failed their parents, and you’ve failed the teachers. I don’t want anything to do with you and your accommodations.”
Monroe scowled, then leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. “I don’t like you and you don’t like me, but I’m sure we can still work this out. And I’m sure I can find a way to sweeten the pot; we’ll call it a . . .”
“A bribe, Monroe?” Lubinsky finished the sentence. “I expected as much. It’s why there’s a section in the bill calling for an independent audit of the Greater New York School District and the union. We’d like to know where all of that money has been going before we start a new budget process, and that probably concerns you more than anything, doesn’t it?”
The waitress arrived with the bourbon, and Monroe downed half of it in a single gulp before slamming the glass back down on the table. “I got nothing to hide,” he snarled, then pointed a finger at her face. “But you’re fucking with the wrong guy.”
Lubinsky’s mouth twisted. “It didn’t take long for the wolf to drop the sheepskin disguise,” she said, then sighed. “But I could not give in to your bribes or your threats, Monroe. The guilt I would feel abandoning all those children to the sort of education you and your ilk provide would be too much.” She paused to look at Gallo. “I learned a long time ago that guilt is a cancer that eats at your soul.”
Monroe started to say something back but Lubinsky held up her hand as she stood. “Don’t bother; this conversation’s over.” She smiled at Gallo. “Micah, you will always be welcome to return to us, but I think you need to look inside yourself before it is too late.” With that she turned and walked away without looking back.
Watching her go, Monroe’s face turned beet red with anger. He finished the rest of his drink and waved at the waitress for yet another. He glanced at Micah, who sat staring at his beer. “Don’t let her bother you, kid,” he said. “Fucking Jews are always acting like they are above it all. It’s nice when you get to pick and choose students for their precious little elitist schools, but what about the other million kids?”
Gallo nodded but didn’t say anything. Monroe scowled and picked his cell phone off the table and punched in a speed dial number.
“She’s not going for it,” he said into the receiver. He listened for a moment and turned slightly away from Gallo. “Goddamn it. We can’t risk this bill passing.” He listened some more. “Yeah, well, both of our asses will be on the line if they ever start looking at the books.”