School & District Management

Panel Fails to Back Mayor’s NYC Schools Chief Pick

State advisory panel declines to recommend waiver for appointee.
By Christina A. Samuels — November 24, 2010 4 min read
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The appointment of publishing executive Cathleen P. Black to be the new chancellor of New York City’s schools was in jeopardy last week after an advisory panel and the state commissioner of education made it clear they would like to see someone with education experience serving in the district’s top job.

Because Ms. Black has no teaching experience or an advanced degree in educational leadership as state regulations require, New York state Commissioner of Education David M. Steiner would have to grant her a waiver before she can assume the post.

But an eight-person panel created to advise Mr. Steiner on whether to grant a waiver was notably cool to Ms. Black’s selection. At a Nov. 23 meeting, four panel members voted no to granting her a waiver, two voted yes, and two voted “not at this time”—an option Mr. Steiner offered that would permit the panel to reconsider the waiver if a chief academic officer with educational experience were appointed along with Ms. Black.

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, right, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s choice to replace Klein, magazine executive Cathie Black, attend a cabinet meeting at the City Department of Education.

Ms. Black is the chairman of the board of Hearst Magazines, a division of the Hearst Corp. that publishes such titles as Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Until earlier this year, she was the division’s president, leading a team of 2,000 employees. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced Nov. 9 that she was his selection to head the district, replacing outgoing Chancellor Joel I. Klein. (“Media Leader Tapped to Head N.Y.C Schools,” November 17, 2010.)

The advisory panel’s reaction to the selection was seen in New York circles as a rebuke of the mayor, who has argued that Ms. Black’s management credentials make her the right choice to lead the nation’s largest district, which has 1.1 million students, 135,000 employees, and a budget of $23 billion.

“She’ll have plenty of educational experts to lean on, to help her in formulating policy,” Mr. Bloomberg said on a radio show soon after her appointment.

But the appointment came under almost immediate criticism. Parents submitted petitions to Mr. Steiner, asking him not to grant a waiver. New York state Sen. Eric Adams, who represents a district in Brooklyn, and Assemblyman Marcos A. Crespo, who represents part of the Bronx, said they planned to introduce legislation that would require the state legislature to approve waivers for district-leader candidates who do not have educational leadership or teaching experience.

The United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers’ union, approved a resolution last week that called for mandating a nationwide search and a “public process of engagement” for chancellor candidates. The resolution criticized Mr. Bloomberg for creating a controversy by appointing Ms. Black.

In his letter requesting a waiver from Mr. Steiner, Mayor Bloomberg argued that his choice was “exceptionally qualified,” and as criticism mounted, the mayor’s office released press statements describing Ms. Black’s powerful supporters. Former Mayors Edward I. Koch, David N. Dinkins, and Rudolph W. Giuliani wrote a letter supporting Ms. Black, as did the Partnership for New York City, a network of high-profile business leaders. Other prominent figures, such as author and feminist Gloria Steinem and actress Whoopi Goldberg, also endorsed her.

The state’s requirements for education leaders are a long-standing provision in New York and not unusual nationwide, said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group.

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As controversial as Ms. Black’s selection has been, putting an education outsider at the head of the city school system is not unprecedented. In 2002, after a state law gave the mayor control of the city’s schools, Mr. Bloomberg picked Mr. Klein, a former assistant U.S. attorney general and the chairman and chief executive officer of the media company Bertelsmann Inc., for the chancellorship.

The state granted waivers for Mr. Klein and for the chancellor before him, lawyer Harold O. Levy. However, it has also blocked such an appointment. In 1983, Robert F. Wagner Jr., a former deputy mayor, was chosen to be chancellor by then-Mayor Koch. He was blocked by then-state Commissioner Gordon M. Ambach because he did not have education credentials.

Some parent groups saw the review panel’s Nov. 23 vote as a victory, but questioned the prospect of adding an academic leader to serve with Ms. Black.

“A compromise of a co-chancellor to ‘mollify’ the mayor’s hurt feelings is absolutely unacceptable, especially since six of the eight voted ‘no confidence’ in Ms. Black’s ability to do the job,” Mona Davids, the president of the New York Charter Parents Association, said in an e-mail.

Joseph P. Viteritti, the chairman of the department of urban planning and policy at City University of New York Hunter College, noted that urban school leaders have often had powerful deputies.

“The game change is that you have the manager at the top and the academic person as second,” he said. “That seems to be the direction the district is moving, and I think that’s significant.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as Roadblocks Grow for Mayor’s Pick to Head NYC Schools

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