Opposition Grows to Bloomberg's Pick for Chancellor

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's appointment of Cathie Black to be the next schools chancellor this week caught the entire city by surprise. Black is a successful publishing executive, but has no experience in the public sector or education. Opposition to her appointment is growing, among members of the City Council and the state legislature. WNYC's Beth Fertig has been covering the story and answers questions about the appointment.

Have we learned any more this week about how Black was appointed? Was there any kind of screening process?

Apparently not. When the mayor made the announcement on Tuesday, people who worked with the current schools chancellor Joel Klein were only given about a half hour's notice that he was resigning that day. Klein told reporters he had informed the Mayor he planned to resign about three months ago because he'd been in the job for eight years and felt it was time to move on. The Mayor said he and Klein spent a lot of time finding the right person to replace him. But it's not clear how much input Klein had, since he also told reporters he only found out about Black's selection on Monday. And people inside the education department have said they weren't involved in the search.

Have we learned anything else about Black this week?

Very little. The Bloomberg administration has declined to let her answer any questions from reporters. Though she did talk to columnist Cindy Adams at the New York Post. She didn't say very much — just that she had an hour and a half meeting with the Mayor where he offered her the job on the spot.

We also learned a little bit about her politics this week. It's been reported that she and her husband are Republicans and have made campaign contributions to Republican candidates. She gave money to a few who are very partisan, such as Dan Burton of Indiana — he led the inquiry into the suicide of Clinton White House aid Vincent Foster. But Black also gave money to Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign. 

There have been some resignations inside the Department of Education, are those significant?

One of them appears to be. The deputy chancellor for finance and budget submitted her resignation effective immediately on Wednesday, the day after the Mayor appointed Black. A spokesperson only said the deputy chancellor felt it was the right time to move on. Another person announced her resignation the day before Black's appointment, a longtime school official who was in charge of the high school enrollment process. The Mayor has said these aren't linked. But clearly there are some nervous people inside the Department of Education. There are seven other deputy chancellors, and we presume they will stick around, but nobody really knows.

Let's talk about the opposition to Black's appointment, at first it was a few politicians but it seems to be growing right?

Oppositing to Black is certainly not universal, but we are hearing more criticism every day, and its getting increasingly harsh. Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn said:

"The Department of Education should not be treated as a playground for the rich and famous or who are tired of their corporate careers. Cathie Black has not demonstrated any indication throughout her entire adult life of an interest in public education."

A reporter from GothamSchools and I spent Friday calling various lawmakers from New York City. We called Democrats because the first few people to speak out were Democrats and we wanted to know if this was a political movement. What we heard is actually a lot of concern. Even from someone who supported continuing mayoral control over the schools last year, Assemblyman Michael Benedetto of the Bronx. He said he trusts the Mayor but he was disappointed by his choice, because Black doesn't have any experience in education. And that's what we heard from about eight or 10 other lawmakers as well.

Is there any way they could prevent Black from taking office?

Not really. Her approval is up to the state education commissioner. Because she doesn't have a school superintendent's license and she doesn't have enough education experience, under state law she needs a waiver from the education commissioner saying she has "exceptional qualifications."  Joel Klein got the waiver when he was appointed. So did the chancellor before him, Harold Levy. But some lawmakers are sending letters to the commissioner, David Steiner, urging him to deny a waiver to Black.

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick of Manhattan said she did that. "It's nothing personal," she says. But, she says, education is different from running a magazine company — she wants a strong instructional leader. Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn wants education commissioner Steiner to meet with lawmakers and hear their concerns before deciding on a waiver. A few others said this as well. I suppose these guys could try to influence the commissioner, or maybe the screening panel he'll appoint to consider the waiver. But it's not likely given the precedent. There is also an online petition urging Steiner to reject her that's gotten over 4,600 people to sign on since Wednesday. They seem to be parents and teachers.

What is the mayor saying in the face of this criticism?

He was asked about this opposition to Black on his weekly radio show this morning on WOR. And here's his response:

"It just goes to show they have no understanding of [what] the job is. This is an organization, an agency of the city, that deals with 1.1 million customers, has 135,000 employees, has a budget of $23 billion a year."

He says that's why it needs a good manager. Also, today the group Democrats for Education Reform sent a letter to Commissioner Steiner today urging him to grant the waiver. They concede she's unconventional. But they also said the last thing the school system needs is someone from a culture that's long tolerated mediocrity. They said Bloomberg got it right when he picked Klein, an anti-trust lawyer from the Justice Department, and they say they trust the mayor's judgment again with Black.

More Quotes from lawmakers:

Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, Brooklyn: "We gave him mayoral control [of the schools] so the mayor will stand or fall on his selection." Benjamin said he's disappointed the Mayor didn't choose an educator and wanted someone from higher education, in particular, to help raise graduation rates.

Assemblyman Keith Wright, Manhattan: "I think the process was very clandestine, very secretive. You know, people get upset with the legislature when we negotiate a $150 billion budget with the press in the next room."

Assemblyman Joan Millman, Brooklyn: "It's kind of a slap in the face at all the professional educators around the country." Millman voted for mayoral control of the schools but said, "you'd want a more open process and the ability to attract the best possible educator."

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, Manhattan: "There are well known educational requirements [to be chancellor, unless given a waiver] and it’s nothing personal regarding Ms. Black, who I do not know, but rather that the reason there are those requirements is that education is different... Managerial skills are not necessarily the sort of skills that are equivalent to being a strong instructional leader with an academic foundation."

Senator Liz Krueger, Manhattan: "I hope [Education Commissioner] Steiner does a thorough vetting of the proposed new chancellor."

Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo: “This is the mayor’s appointment. It’s the mayor’s judgment. The mayor’s judgment has proven good in the past. And I will leave it to the Mayor’s judgment. In terms of the waiver, that is a waiver that’ll be determined by the commissioner of education, I believe, and I’ll leave that decision to them.”