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Five things you may not know about the next schools chancellor

What do we know about Cathie Black?

Most of the profiles of her published so far focus on her management style, her similarities to her new boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and her lack of substantive experience in education.

But other details are beginning to surface. Here are some things we’ve learned so far:

This is not the first time she has walked into a management situation as an almost complete outsider.

Seven pages into her memoir-like business advice book, newly-appointed city schools chancellor Cathie Black recounts an episode that suggests yesterday’s events may have felt like deja-vu.

In the book, Black describes the first time she walked into the offices of USA Today to meet the staff. She had just been named president following the newspaper’s tumultuous first year:

I was also a female, non-newspaper person and an absolute unknown quantity to these people — many of whom had just learned about my hiring moments beforehand. As I looked around the room, I could feel the questions in the air: Was I a savior, a marketing genius who could turn the paper around? Or would I be a flop?

Twenty-seven years later, Black is in a similar situation: an outsider entering a school system whose members have as many questions about her as she does about them. Even her predecessor, current Chancellor Joel Klein, only found out that she would take the position on Monday, he told reporters today.

She’s checked in with the teachers union head, but hasn’t set a date to meet them yet.

Black called teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew yesterday, a union spokesman said. No word yet on when the new chancellor will sit down with the union heads to talk shop, however. As Bloomberg pointed out yesterday, Mulgrew and Black have met once before — but only in passing.

There is a growing movement lobbying State Education Commissioner David Steiner not to grant her the waiver she needs to become chancellor.

Because Black lacks the minimum of three years’ education experience required under state law to become chancellor, she will need a waiver from State Education Commissioner David Steiner. Before Steiner can grant the waiver, he must appoint a panel to review the mayor’s reasons Black should have this job.

Critics of the mayor’s decision to appoint a businesswoman who lacks education experience are now rallying around the waiver process, urging Steiner not to grant it. As of around 7:30 this evening, more than 950 people had signed an online petition posted yesterday calling for the state education department to deny the waiver.

Black’s appointment has also drawn criticism from a number of state legislators, including Senators Bill Perkins and Carl Kruger and incoming Senator Tony Avella. State Assemblyman Marcos A. Crespo also sent Steiner a letter today opposing Black’s appointment and saying that he is considering legislation that could block waivers for non-educators in the future.

Steiner answers to the State Board of Regents, who are appointed by the Assembly. So if political opposition to Black’s appointment grows — particularly in the State Assembly and especially in the office of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — there’s a possibility it could doom her chances.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch yesterday seemed cautiously supportive of the mayor’s appointment. “At the heart of mayoral control, I truly believe in allowing the mayor to make his choices,” Tisch told City Hall News.

If layoffs come, she will have a strategy.

One of the biggest questions of next year will be whether the city can avoid massive teacher layoffs. For this school year, the city skirted layoffs by spending the money it had set aside for future teacher raises to plug its budget gap. But next year marks the end of the federal stimulus money it has been relying on to balance state budget cuts, and city officials have warned that it’s unclear how they might make up the difference. Klein told reporters today that he believes layoffs are a real threat.

Black is coming from the publishing industry, which has seen its fair share of financial woes, and she has personal experience as the manager who breaks the bad news. In a video called “Layoff Lessons” that Forbes posted today, Black explains how she approached layoffs in publishing:

Well, for the person having to do the dirty deed, it’s very hard. I mean, I think you want to have thought through it very carefully, you want to have worked with your human resources department. You want to have a package already prepared for each individual. You want to get your message out. You don’t have to have an hour’s conversation. Because about the first five words that come out of your mouth, as in, “a department is not going to exist any longer,” they have mentally checked out. They are listening to one more word that you are saying, so it’s like, make it short and sweet.

But you have to be empathetic. It’s a very hard time there today. So I think you want to be fair. You know, walking around a little bit is not a bad thing to do. I think in tough times you want to be seen walking the floors.

Black’s political donations span the ideological spectrum.

Over the past five years, Black has given money to both Democrats and Republicans from all over the country, the Village Voice reports. Her biggest political donations have been not to candidates, however, but to the Magazine Publishers of America, the industry’s political action committee. In the most recent election cycle, the PAC gave more to Democrats than to Republicans

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