Panel Rejects Black, Now What?

Mayor Bloomberg's controversial pick for schools chancellor has run into serious trouble. An advisory panel has voted against granting a waiver to publishing executive Cathie Black. The waiver would have allowed Black to take the job despite lacking the right education credentials. The panel's vote was 4-to-2. Two other panelists said they didn't want to decide "at this time." Now, it's up to State Education Commissioner David Steiner to make a final decision on Black's future - and he's already indicated he won't rubber stamp the mayor's request. WNYC's Beth Fertig explains.

Tell us about how the vote went down yesterday and what it means.

The eight panel members met for two hours inside a boardroom at the state education department's office on Park Avenue South. Reporters weren't allowed inside so all this information came afterwards when the chair of the panel, Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman, read a statement to us and she took no questions. But what she said was this: Education Commissioner Steiner laid out the three options, they could vote yes, no or "not at this time." He also told them he preferred the latter, adding that he was open to having the application submitted again in a way in which Black is joined by a Chief Academic Officer type of person, someone responsible for education side of things and who would have some autonomy. Steiner ultimately decides so now that the panel's rejected the mayor's request it looks like he's saying come back again with an educator to work with Black. But he hasn't written his decision yet.
We've been hearing a war of words over Cathie Black for weeks now -- opponents says she's not an educator. The mayor says her management skills at Hearst Magazines and USA Today will make her a good chancellor. Is there any indication what swayed the advisory board?

No they won't talk. But with four people voting no, and two others preferring to wait they apparently weren't persuaded. The state statute requires superintendents or chancellors in NYC to have a license, or a master's degree or three years teaching experience. She had none of that. So we can only speculate about why they rejected her. And this is all speculation. There was tremendous opposition to Black from parents and teachers and politicians who wanted an educator. Over 13,000 people signed a petition opposing her. Mayor Bloomberg fought back with a political campaign, lining up powerful business leaders and former mayors and women to support Black. And then yesterday a poll came out showing more than half of the registered voters surveyed thought Black didn't have the experience to be chancellor -- and among public school parents it was even higher, two thirds didn't want her.
Weren't there concerns about conflict of interest on the panel -- about their connections to Mayor Bloomberg and that they'd rubber stamp Black's appointment?

Yes, three worked for the current chancellor Joel Klein, including one woman he wanted to elevate to deputy chancellor but couldn't because the state said she lacked the credentials. So that's why some speculated the deck was stacked. Then fourth panel member, Louise Mirrer, who heads the New York Historical Society, came under scrutiny because her museum received almost half a million dollars in donations from the mayor. There were a lot of stories raising concerns about their ties in The New York Times and other media. It's possible they felt need to show independence after Bloomberg lobbied so hard and they came under scrutiny. But I'm told they're all respected educators who are independent thinkers.

It seems like the mayor put the state education commissioner in a difficult situation, by picking such an unconventional Chancellor. What was David Steiner's dilemma?

Steiner was caught off guard, he's the education commissioner and Bloomberd didn't give him any heads up about this unconventional choice of chancellor. And Steiner has to follow the state law. It looks bad to give a waiver to someone with no experience, he'd have to answer to the state board of regents. By offering this possiblity of accepting Black if she's joined by someone who knows education Steiner is trying to compromise. But that undercuts the mayor's argument that Cathie Black's managerial experience is so good she can be chancellor by relying on other educators surrounding her. It also ties her to this academic leader, whoever it is. What if they leave? How would that work? Former Chancellor Harold Levy, who got a waiver 10 years ago because he was a lawyer, said that's like giving someone a driver's license and then making sure they have two drivers in the car. He thinks it's unweildy. But Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told me she thinks it's completely reasonable and that two leaders can work in tandem if one is responsible for instruction and academics and one runs the overall agency.

Commissioner Steiner is expected to make a decision soon -- how much of an indication did you get yesterday about what that will be?

He said he was mindful of the holiday, but we dont' know, that could mean today or maybe next week. He hasn't made his official decision and he has to put that in writing. The real question then is what the mayor will do. Will he elevate one of the deputy chancellors? Will this be acceptable to him? He's invested a lot of political clout in Cathie Black -- it will be interesting to see how he takes this. So far City Hall has been silent.