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Inside Tweed, Klein assures staff he left of his own accord

Amid speculation that he might have been forced to resign, Chancellor Joel Klein walked into the rotunda of Tweed Courthouse today to say goodbye to his staff and assure them that his decision to leave was own.

Klein said that when he agreed to be schools chancellor more than eight years ago, he assumed he would have the job for two terms at the most. But when the City Council ended term limits and Mayor Bloomberg won re-election, the chancellor began to plan his exit.

“I told the mayor that soon in the third term I would move on. That’s been in my head and my heart,” he said.

He acknowledged that the transition to a new chancellor would be rough for the department, and for him.

“I said to the mayor, this is the best job I ever had,” he said. “Ask my wife how long I cried last night.”

Yesterday’s news that Klein will resign and be replaced by Heart Magazines chairwoman Cathleen Black caught most DOE officials, even the highest-ranking ones, by surprise. And at 9 a.m. this morning, employees filed into the building’s rotunda to hear Klein say goodbye. Clutching Blackberrys and briefcases, some peered down over the railing of the second floor, while others packed the ground floor. When Klein appeared, they broke into applause.

The chancellor began his speech formally, with a litany of numbers and statistics that he often pulls out when defending his legacy.

“We transformed a system that was built on power and patronage and politics…to a system built on progress and performance,” he said. “It’s not to say that we haven’t made mistakes…but it is a transformed system.”

Klein is joining the News Corporation as an executive vice president in charge of advising the company on how to invest in digital initiatives in education. Privately, some DOE officials have questioned this step, saying it is far removed from the national political platform Klein has sought, but the chancellor said he doesn’t see it that way.

“This keeps me in the game I care about,” he said. “I think News Corp has the money and the committment to have a big impact on education,” citing technologically innovative programs in the city that could benefit, such as School of One.

Klein said he planned to stay active in education politics through the Education Equality Project, his first political venture, which he co-founded with Rev. Al Sharpton in 2008. Sharpton agreed to the partnership after receiving a large donation to his nonprofit. Though the organization held a rally in D.C. and has raised over a $1 million, it has not had a prominent role in reform politics.

The chancellor briefly ceded the floor to Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott who, in describing his relationship with Klein, began to tear up. But he assured his audience that he had high hopes for their new boss.

“When you sort through all the BS, you’re looking at a trailblazer,” Walcott said of Black. He said that, on meeting Klein eight years ago, he’d felt an instant chemistry. “The same thing happened when I met Cathie Black,” he said.

Both Klein and Walcott have described their eight years of working together as a second marriage, though the chancellor said he was grateful his wife would have the occasional drink with him, while Walcott would not.

“In eight-plus years we’ve been through so much together,” Klein said. After difficult days, he would sometimes turn to Walcott and suggest they get a drink to relax and erase the difficulties of work, if only temporarily. But Walcott always begged off, saying he doesn’t drink, Klein said. But two weeks ago, after a meeting in Chelsea, Walcott was the one to suggest a drink.

“And that’s when I knew I could resign,” the chancellor said.