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Voice of the Big Apple

What's it like to become the official voice of public information for the nation's biggest school district just a few days before the start of school?

"Like joining Toys 'R Us the week before Christmas," Peter Kerr said of the media melee he plunged into. New York City's public schools started classes last week.

Mr. Kerr, 47, the new communications director for city Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, has taken on one of the highest-profile school public relations jobs in the country, just as the 1.1 million-student system is working through a number of major changes. They include a new governance structure, a revised curriculum, and aggressive efforts to do a better job communicating with parents.

For Mr. Kerr, the pace of his new job was set during that first week, and he expects it to stay fast. "It's very simple: It's the first week of school, and everything else has flowed out of that," he said in an interview last week.

As the school year unfolds, Mr. Kerr will have the responsibility of dispensing information and commentary to a host of local and national media outlets in a city that thrives on combative news coverage.

This is also a city where, in the past, battles between the schools chancellor and the mayor have been the focus of much local and national press attention. So, a key challenge ahead will be to harmonize Mr. Klein's messages with those of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The mayor, who now wields ultimate power over the school system, appointed Mr. Klein.

"The chancellor and the mayor are very much of one mind on basic policy—and talk frequently," Mr. Kerr said.

Mr. Kerr, who arrived from the relatively sedate world of technology policy debates at the Markle Foundation at New York's Rockefeller Center, spent 14 years as a reporter and bureau chief for The New York Times. He believes both jobs will help him now.

"In this job, there are both high-level policy issues and nuts-and-bolts human problems you're dealing with," he said.

Plus, he suggested, his experiences reporting on political campaigns for the Times will help him cope with the highly politicized atmosphere of public education in the city.

Mr. Kerr said his new job is simply "the other side of the same coin."

Andrew Trotter

Vol. 23, Issue 3, Page 7

Published in Print: September 17, 2003, as Media

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