Anger, frustration over mayor's chancellor choice

Cathie Black and Joel Klein during a news conference at City Hall in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010. ((AP Photo/Seth Wenig))

November 17, 2010 6:06:53 PM PST
The magazine executive Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose to lead New York's sprawling public school system has spent the week shuttling between her Park Avenue apartment building and the her office at Hearst Magazines, shadowed by City Hall aides who are briefing her on education issues.

Bloomberg's curveball choice of Cathie Black for the post of schools chancellor has upset some city leaders, who have petitioned the state to deny her permission to serve, blasted her lack of education experience and urged the mayor to instead conduct a public search.

Black, the Hearst chairwoman and former publisher of USA Today, has been largely shielded from the public since Bloomberg announced her appointment Nov. 9. On Tuesday, she spoke to reporters after her first meeting with city Department of Education heads and the outgoing chancellor, Joel Klein.

"I'll prove them wrong," Black told the New York Post and the NY1 cable television channel. "This has happened to the predecessors before me, and we'll get through it. ... I will be the next chancellor."

Three former mayors stepped up to defend Black on Wednesday. A letter from Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani released by the city said Black "certainly has an extraordinary track record of managing large organizations through trying circumstances."

Mayor Bloomberg has sent a six page letter to State Education Commissioner David Steiner requesting a School District Leader certificate for Cathie Black so she could serve as Schools Chancellor.

Thousands of opponents have signed an online petition urging state Education Commissioner David Steiner to deny Black the waiver. A dozen City Council members introduced a resolution Wednesday asking Steiner for a denial.

Meanwhile, Black's meeting with the union that represents 87,000 city teachers has been put off until after Thanksgiving.

Critics say that Black's lack of experience in public education and the secrecy surrounding her appointment could put her at a disadvantage when - or if - she takes the reins of the 1.1 million-pupil school system.

"The parents I've spoken to are a bit confused by this choice and don't quite understand what her background is and what her views are," said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who has called on Bloomberg to have Black speak at a public forum. "It would clear the air and potentially set things on a good path for her to address these things in a public manner."

Critics also have questioned Black's service on the board of Coca-Cola Co. during a time when Bloomberg was pressing to get sugary soft drinks out of the schools. Black resigned from the board this week, citing a potential conflict of interest.

Jeffrey Henig, coordinator of the politics and education program at Columbia University's Teachers College, said that by reaching out to the public, Bloomberg could have used the appointment of a new chancellor to build support for his school-reform agenda.

"Ultimately success depends on building a coalition that's supportive of reform over the long term," Henig said, "and not simply adopting some technically defined 'right' policies."

Because he won mayoral control of the schools after taking office in 2002, Bloomberg has wide authority to place whomever he wants in the chancellor's seat.

Asked to defend his choice Wednesday, Bloomberg reiterated that Black is qualified because she has created jobs and knows what the work force requires.

"You have to make sure that our children get the skill sets that they need to work," he said. "We've got to make sure that our kids understand what it is to go out in the real world."

Bloomberg said criticism is coming from people who have opposed all of his education policies.

"The people who are objecting would object to anybody that the mayor picked," he said. "They never liked mayoral control. ... We're setting the agenda for the country, and what we've got to do is seamlessly continue on."

But some education experts say Bloomberg's choice of a noneducator without a public search shows the downside of mayoral control, which exists in other large cities including Chicago and Boston.

"There needs to be some form of checks and balances," said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at New York University.

"Mayoral control can't mean that the mayor is the only one who makes major decisions."

Bloomberg's 2002 choice of Klein did not prompt the sort of backlash that Black's choice has.

Observers said Bloomberg, who angered voters when he persuaded the City Council to change term-limits law so that he could run for another four years, no longer gets the benefit of the doubt.

"This is life in the third term, when it's tough to re-energize any support, and you've spent a lot of support and capital along the way," said Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff. "It's harder to exert the mayoral muscle."

Levy, a lawyer who preceded Klein and was New York City's first nontraditional chancellor, said Black will face a steep learning curve if the waiver is granted.

"Walking into that system with no experience in managing an organized work force and no experience in education would be a pretty tall order for anyone," he said.

Klein, a former federal prosecutor who is leaving city government to take a job with News Corp., lacked education credentials but taught sixth grade briefly in the 1960s.

His waiver was granted by former state Education Commissioner Richard Mills, who said the process was "very careful and deliberate." He said public or political opposition to Klein wouldn't have affected his decision.

"It is a judgment about credentials," he said.

Black released a statement on Wednesday evening saying: "Yesterday, I had a great first visit to the Department of Education. Joel took me on a tour and introduced me to many of the wonderful staff before I sat down for a meeting with the full Cabinet. We had a great exchange of ideas during that meeting and they could not have been more welcoming. In the coming days and weeks, we'll be spending more time together discussing the pressing issues facing our schools and the best way to build on the reforms of the last 8 years.

I also want to say a big thank you to the Mayor, former Mayors, countless elected officials, educators, business leaders and friends who have expressed their support both publicly and privately and put such faith in me. I look forward to working with all of them and the talented team Joel has built to continue improving our schools and ensure that every child in this great city has access to quality education."