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State lawmakers' objections to Black shaded by mayoral control

State Education Commissioner David Steiner is the person who has the final word over whether Cathie Black is permitted as Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s successor. But the group of people who effectively oversee Steiner are trying to have their say, too.

A number of lawmakers — including Assembly members Marcos Crespo and Deborah Glick, as well as State Senator-elect Tony Avella — have already sent Steiner letters urging him to block Black’s appointment. Others have not gone that far, but are expressing deep misgivings both about Black’s lack of education credentials and the mayor’s abrupt and secretive selection process.

In making their stance, state lawmakers walk a fine line.

On the one hand, the legislature appoints the Board of Regents, who in turn appoint Steiner. And Steiner frequently needs to negotiate with lawmakers, as he has done this year over the charter cap and state budget. Lawmakers’ stances on Black’s appointment therefore matter.

“I think it should [matter],” said Queens Assemblyman David Weprin. “[Steiner is] going to have to deal with the legislature on a myriad of issues, as he has already.”

But at the same time, these are the same lawmakers who extended sole authority over the city schools to Bloomberg last year.

While state education law gives the mayor full authority to appoint the chancellor, the law also requires the chancellor to have professional certification in school district administration and at least three years’ experience in the schools. The commissioner may legally waive those requirements for “exceptionally qualified persons.”

For some lawmakers — and the teachers and parents who have been flooding their offices with calls and e-mails — the question boils down to the definition of “exceptionally qualified.”

While Bloomberg argues that Black’s long career as a successful publishing executive gives her adequate management credentials, others are insisting that the new chancellor’s qualifications should be found in the education sector.

“I do in general believe that the person who will serve as chancellor should be someone with extensive experience in education, even if it’s not someone who has the required experience for a certificate,” said Brooklyn Assemblyman Karim Camara.

Camara and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries are trying to set up a meeting with Steiner next week. Neither of the two is yet urging Steiner to deny Black the waiver, but they do want the commissioner to clarify how he interprets what qualifications a chancellor needs.

Weprin said that he also is not yet opposing the waiver outright. But he said he wants Steiner to hold hearings about the appointment in all five boroughs of New York City before the waiver can be granted. Weprin plans to release a letter requesting the public hearings on Monday.

“I think the public is entitled to transparency in the process,” Weprin said.

Even some legislative supporters of mayoral control said that they opposed Bloomberg’s appointment. Brooklyn Assemblywoman Joan Millman said that she would sign a petition urging Steiner not to grant the waiver.

Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benedetto said that he was “disappointed” by Bloomberg’s pick, but that he would not push against her appointment. Benedetto was one of five members of the Assembly education committee to vote in favor of renewing mayoral control during that 2009 fight, and he said that he would give the mayor “the benefit of the doubt.”

“I’m willing to give Ms. Black a chance,” Benedetto said. “She is certainly a person of achievement, of skill, of intellect. It’s certainly quite possible that a person of those abilities could — with the right advice — sail a good ship. It’s not the ship and not the captain I would have wanted, but I’m willing to give them a chance.”

Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benjamin said that he would have preferred a chancellor with expertise in higher education who could focus on college-readiness, especially for minority students.

But ultimately, Benjamin said, the mayoral control law means there is a limit to the influence state legislators can exert.

“We gave the mayoral control so the mayor will stand or fall on his selection,” Benjamin said.

Reporting was contributed by Beth Fertig, in partnership with WNYC.

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