New Chancellor in Waiting Cathie Black Emerges, Slowly

Mayor Bloomberg got his new schools chancellor this week. On Monday, the state's education commissioner granted approval for Hearst Magazines chairwoman Cathie Black to run the nation's largest school system. But only after the mayor agreed to appoint a chief academic officer as her deputy chancellor, because Black didn't have experience in education.

Black's appointment stirred a controversy over whether she was qualified for the job. And that hasn't exactly died down since her approval. WNYC's Beth Fertig has been following the story and answers questions.

As we know there's been tremendous interest in Cathie Black because she was such an unconventional pick for schools chancellor. On Tuesday she gave her first press conference after being appointed and then gave a TV interview Friday. Did we learn anything new about how she views the job?

Not a lot, though I haven't seen the whole interview with Channel 7. That's airing Sunday morning. But she was asked whether the fact that the mayor appointed her, apparently without consulting anyone, means he'll be in charge of the schools, not her.

"I would hope that it's a collaborative relationship. That's my expectation. But at the end of the day he is the mayor. But he wouldn't have put somebody like me in this position if he just wanted to rubber stamp everything," said Black.

Black went on to say that she's a collaborator and she'll seek out the opinions of others to guide her views. That's also what she said on Tuesday after visiting PS 109 in the Bronx.

Her appearances have been pretty limited, right?

Yes, she didn't give any interviews at all after her appointment on November 9th. So there were a lot of media outside PS 109 in the Bronx when she made her first school visit since winning state approval. But Black didn't allow reporters to follow her inside when she toured the school. That's unusual -- the past few chancellors have let reporters tag along when they visited schools for the first time. Black stayed inside for about half an hour. After she told reporters she wants to prepare for her job by visiting as many schools as possible. A parent then shouted a question about whether failing schools should be closed, or if that will cause more overcrowding. Here's what she said.

"I'm not going to comment on specific things this morning. It is my first day and so I'll get to understand it. All of these things are very important and challenging questions and we'll come up with what we believe are the right answers," said Black.

OK, fair enough. It was her first day. Has she become more visible?

Not until the interview with Channel 7. The Bloomberg Administration has been extremely secretive about her schedule. This week they refused to tell reporters which schools she was visiting until after the fact. This secrecy caused a lot of tension between the press and the Bloomberg Administration. A few organizations, including WNYC, wrote a letter to the Education Department requesting more openness on the grounds that it's important to see how Black is preparing to lead the schools. Here's what the mayor said on Thursday when asked why she isn't being made more available.

"She's still working for Hearst Corporation. She doesn't start here until January 2," said Bloomberg.

Does he have a point? And how much does it matter what she does before January?

Look, technically the mayor is right. Cathie Black is not the chancellor. Joel Klein is still in charge until he leaves at the end of the year. But Black is going to meetings at the Department of Education, she's traveling around the city with public officials. That's why reporters say they should be more forthcoming about her schedule.

But as to your greater point - there are lots of reasons why her schedule matters. This is the most unconventional chancellor the city's ever had. The last two chancellors were lawyers who also needed state approval. But one of them, Harold Levy, was a member of the board of regents. And Joel Klein had gone to the city's public schools and taught briefly in Queens; he also worked in the public sector at the US Justice Department. Cathie Black has no experience working in government or education. She attended parochial schools and sent her children to a private boarding school. So it would be interesting to know who's helping to inform her on unfamiliar policy issues like school closings or class size? Is she seeing a representative sample of city schools? Or programs for special education students and kids who are still learning English? And how much is she relying now on the man who was elevated to be her Chief Academic Officer, deputy chancellor Shael Polakow Suransky?

The mayor says Cathie Black is the right person to lead the New York schools because she has managerial experience running Hearst Magazines and USA TODAY, two very complex organizations. Why does that matter - what is she facing?

She's facing an enormous challenge. And this is a very critical time because the economy is still weak and federal stimulus funds run out next year. The schools are gearing up for more budget cuts. The mayor said as many as 6000 teaching positions could be lost next fall. And contract talks with the union are still at an impasse.

How will someone from a corporate background who never had to deal with a big union handle that? What kinds of concessions might she push for? I'm told that in the Channel 7 interview she says budget cuts can be handled by careful allocations; that she doesn't plan to change the current system for deciding which schools to close; and that teacher quality is more important than class size. The whole interview will be broadcast Sunday morning. But how will those views play out?  Where will she look to save money? Will she privatize any services? There are all kinds of costly things that are required by law like special education services in particular- but maybe there are ways to save money, too. People at the department of education have told me Joel Klein actually wasn't a very good manager. Maybe Cathie Black will really add something. We're all very eager to hear her thoughts as she opens up and begins granting interviews.