School & District Management

NYC Mayor Seeks Waiver for His Chancellor Choice

By Christina A. Samuels — November 19, 2010 6 min read
Cathleen P. Black, chairman of the board of Hearst Magazines, needs a waiver from state Commissioner of Education David M. Steiner in order to become the New York City schools chancellor.
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New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has formally requested a state waiver to make publishing executive Cathleen P. Black the city’s schools chief, even as opposition to her selection has become more vocal this week.

Ms. Black is a person of “extraordinary skills and accomplishments” with firsthand knowledge of the demands and challenges of today’s workplace, the mayor wrote in a six-page appeal to state Commissioner of Education David M. Steiner. The letter, dated Nov. 17, was posted on the website of The New York Times.

Under state law, district leaders in New York are required to have at least three years of teaching experience, a master’s degree or higher, and successful completion of a professional certificate in educational leadership. The commissioner is allowed to grant a waiver, however, for “exceptionally qualified” people.

Some local groups are citing the state requirement in seeking to block the appointment of Ms. Black, who has little experience in education, to succeed Joel I. Klein as the chancellor of the 1.1 million-student school district. Mayor Bloomberg announced the surprise pick Nov. 9. (“Media Leader Tapped to Head N.Y.C. Schools,” Nov. 17, 2010.)

In his letter, though, Mr. Bloomberg argued that his choice fits the description of “exceptionally qualified.” Ms. Black is the chairman of the board of Hearst Magazines, a division of the Hearst Corp. that publishes titles such as Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Until earlier this year, she served as the division’s president, leading a team of 2,000 employees.

Track Record Examined

At Hearst, the mayor wrote, Ms. Black “was responsible for putting the company at the forefront of digital expansion by starting a digital media unit dedicated to creating and implementing online and mobile strategies.” During her time there, he said, she “spearheaded innovative strategies” that produced record-breaking years for the company. And her educational experience includes time spent on the boards of the University of Notre Dame and her alma mater, Trinity Washington University. She also serves as a trustee of the Kent School, a 500-student boarding school in Connecticut, and recently joined the leadership board of the Harlem Village Academies, a charter school group in New York City.

These varied experiences have made Ms. Black “an innovative leader with a proven track record of success, who can immediately step in, consolidate our gains, and aggressively continue our reform efforts by effectively working together with students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community groups,” Mr. Bloomberg concluded.

Groups mobilizing to lobby the state education commissioner for denial of a waiver for Ms. Black say that the mayor’s choice was made without any community input.

“The selection of a new chancellor for any public school district, especially the largest in the nation, should follow a baseline public process beyond going through one’s personal address book,” Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, was quoted as telling The New York Times. Ms. Black has been described as a social acquaintance of the mayor’s.

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However, city leaders and others have offered their support of Ms. Black. Former mayors Edward I. Koch, David N. Dinkins, and Rudolph W. Giuliani have written a letter supporting her, as has the Partnership for New York City, a network of high-profile business leaders. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey has also spoken in favor of the pick.

Ms. Black herself has been relatively silent, speaking briefly to the television station NY1 and to the New York Post. After visiting district headquarters on Wednesday, she released a statement saying that she had had a “great” first visit to the city 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,” she said in the statement, referring to Mr. Klein, the outgoing chancellor. “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 eight years.”

Mr. Bloomberg selected Mr. Klein, another nontraditional choice, in 2002 after a state law gave the mayor control of the city’s school system.

History of Waivers

New York state’s requirements for education leaders are not unusual nationwide, said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group. “It’s typical in most states, and it’s been a long-standing provision in New York,” he said.

In New York City, waivers were granted for Mr. Klein, who was an assistant U.S. attorney general and a chairman and chief executive officer of the media company Bertelsmann, Inc. before heading the school system, and for the chancellor before him, lawyer Harold O. Levy.

However, the state has also blocked appointments. In 1983, Robert F. Wagner Jr., a former deputy mayor and president of the city board of education, was selected to be chancellor by then-mayor Koch. He was denied by the state commissioner at the time, Gordon M. Ambach, because he did not have education credentials.

David C. Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership at the City University of New York, said in an interview that he believes Ms. Black will be granted a waiver. “But it’s much more wobbly than it was last week at this time, when her name was announced,” he said.

“If Cathie Black is qualified, who isn’t?” Mr. Bloomfield said. “The challenge for the commissioner is, how could he grant the waiver and maintain any integrity to the requirements?”

Mr. Bloomberg has not apologized for how he selected Ms. Black, saying that a public search is inappropriate for certain high-level positions.

“Nobody does a search out in the open like that. At a certain level, that’s just not the way anyone would do it,” the mayor said during a regular radio show. “It’s too embarrassing to them if they don’t get selected.”

Mr. Bloomberg reiterated his belief that Ms. Black has the management expertise to run the district, which has a budget of $23 billion and 135,000 employees.

“She’ll have plenty of educational experts to lean on, to help her in formulating policy,” he said. “The real issue is, does she have the character and the smarts and the courage to do what’s right, and I think this is a woman that does.”

But management experience, while essential, is not the only skill that urban superintendents must bring to their jobs, said Becca Bracy Knight, the executive director of the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems, a Los Angeles-based organization that runs the Broad Superintendents Academy, a 10-month program that trains leaders from education and non-education backgrounds to be leaders in urban districts.

In 2009, 43 percent of the 28 vacancies in large districts were filled by graduates of the center’s superintendents academy; the graduates came from both traditional and nontraditional backgrounds.

“The leadership skills are transferable, but you have to gain deep knowledge as quickly as possible about teaching and learning,” Ms. Knight said.

Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor of public policy at the City University of New York, said that any New York school leader will be coming into a position fraught with challenges. Both the federal and the state pictures are unclear when it comes to education policy, he said, and the city is also facing budget cuts.

While still important, the educational agenda “is probably going to be the least significant part of her work” because she will be expected to implement Mr. Klein’s vision, he said in an interview. But she will still have to work in the complicated political system of New York. “There are subtleties to this that are very difficult. She cannot be a caretaker.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2010 edition of Education Week

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