Influencing Steiner

Right now, there is only one person who can block Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial nominee from actually getting the job of running the nation’s largest school system: David Steiner.

As commissioner of the state Department of Education, Steiner will decide whether to grant “a waiver” to Bloomberg’s pick Cathie Black, since she does not have the requisite work or education background for the job. Black, a magazine publisher until Bloomberg offered her the job “out of left field,” did not attend public school, and sent her children to boarding school in another state.

Those are just some of the complaints critics have raised about Black. Others' objections are less personal. Some critics say the job is too complex for anyone to master in three years. (Bloomberg’s latest term in City Hall is set to expire on December 31, 2013. He says he will not seek to extend his term by rejiggering the city’s term limits law again.)

Waivers have been granted before to candidates like Black. Frank Macchiarola, deemed “the undisputed boss of the public schools” by New York magazine, got one. So did Harold O. Levy, the guy tapped to run city schools by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a hard-nosed manager in his own right with a penchant for driving critics out of the city (Police Commissioner Bratton fled to L.A., while Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew went to Miami).

Bloomberg has already won one waiver from the state when he selected his first chancellor, Joel I. Klein.

But the world was different then. At that time in 2002, the state legislature had just granted Bloomberg mayoral control of schools, and denying him his pick to run the schools would have required unusually cohesive opposition. None existed, in no small part because Bloomberg was a new mayor (read: had made no enemies). And Klein was, in some ways, an ideal person for a waiver. Not only did he quickly master much of the district's arcane data, but he spoke convincingly about his own experiences in the New York City public education system. To this day, his name is still on the Wall of Honor at the public school he attended in Astoria, Queens.

But none of those waivers were granted by Steiner, who became the state education commissioner in the summer of last year.

So far, he’s shied away from saying what he thinks of Black’s candidacy.

While City Hall has pointed to Black’s notable supporters, including former Mayors Guiliani, Dinkins, and Koch, a resolution opposing Black’s nomination was circulated in the New York City Council.

Few lawmakers have come out in her defense, but there hasn't been a lot of protest from legislators either. (State Senator-elect Tony Avella is an exception - he immediately announced his desire to see her blocked after Black’s surprise nomination was announced on November 9.)

But there is some grousing about the process. Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn notes, with some displeasure, that Steiner is obligated to create a screening panel to review Black’s waiver request, but, that’s about all Steiner has to do.

“The only obligation that constrains [Steiner] is that he appoint a screening panel that will evaluate the waiver request and then make a recommendation to him, said Jeffries. “He does not have to accept the recommendation by the screening panel.”

Jeffries also noted there are no “parameters about the makeup of the screening panel” that Steiner has to put together.

Despite the wide latitude Steiner has, he is constrained, somewhat, by the reality that he is operating, for better or worse, in Albany. (A place that Governor Paterson, in moments of frustration, he refers to as a separate planet where even the laws of physics don’t apply.)

While lawmakers have no formal role in granting the kind of waiver that only Steiner can issue, they do have some things that he wants: control of the education budget.

“Certainly the legislature has budgetary and oversight” power, noted Jeffries, who said he was confident that Steiner would want to “maintain a continuing relationship with the Senate and Assembly moving forward.”

“I’m sure he understands the need to be responsive, sensitive and respectful throughout this wavier process,” said Jeffries.

So, they do have a way to make their voices heard.

Another source who follows state education policy said the waiver issue, like anything else in Albany, is impacted by the lawmakers who decide to get involved. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is declining to comment, seeing no need to lend any of his significant influence to the matter.

The chair of the Education Committee in the New York State Senate, Suzi Oppenheimer, has not commented publicly yet, and did not return a call seeking comment. She’s also busy with an unresolved recount in her re-elction campaign, where she holds a lead over  a Republican challenger who had the distinct benefit of being endorsed by…Mayor Bloomberg.

Whether Black gets the waiver is “a close call,” said Jeffries. Steiner “can go in either direction.”