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Panel denies Mayor Bloomberg's choice for schools chancellor

In a rebuke to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an eight-member panel of education experts recommended this evening that State Education Commissioner David Steiner deny publishing executive Cathleen Black a waiver to become the next schools chancellor.

And Steiner told the panel that his own preference is to wait to grant the waiver until the city also installs a top educator with some independent power, the panel’s chair said.

Four panel members voted against granting the waiver, two voted in favor, and two voted “not at this time,” said the panel’s chair, Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman. Neither Fuhrman nor state education officials would say how individual panel members cast their votes.

Without a background in education, Black needs a waiver from the state that will let her bypass the prerequisites: that she have a degree in education and several years of teaching behind her. The final call rests with Steiner, who would not say when he plans to make his final decision.

Speaking to reporters after the panel adjourned, Fuhrman said that Steiner gave the panel several options: they could vote to grant the waiver, deny it, or to reconsider Black “in a different context.” Fuhrman gave a specific example of what those different circumstances might look like: if, for example, the city proposed to install Black as chancellor alongside a Chief Academic Officer who had academic experience and some autonomous power in the department.

“I think it’s novel, and innovative, and an attempt to split the baby,” said former city schools chancellor Harold Levy. “But I think…it would be very difficult as a pragmatic matter to make this work.”

Steiner may not have the legal authority to condition the waiver on another person’s appointment, Levy said, and that the move raises murky questions about where the chancellor’s authority would end and where the deputy’s would begin.

“Does the chancellor have authority to overrule the deputy?” Levy asked. “Does the chancellor, if she fires the deputy, have to get approval again for the new deputy? It gives the deputy extraordinary authority and leverage and I think potentially handcuffs her as a manager – precisely her strength. I think it was an attempt to be innovative and creative and ultimately may not work.”

It’s not clear how open the mayor will be to Steiner’s compromise suggestion of adding a chief academic officer to bolster Black’s bid. Bloomberg could decide to promote an educator from within the ranks of the DOE or appoint someone from outside the city. Or he could refuse to consider the possibility.

If the mayor decides to look to the deputy chancellors for an educator to pair with Black, he will have some options to choose from.

Chief Schools Officer Eric Nadelstern is a 39-year veteran of the Department of Education, a former principal and district official who became one of a small number of old-guard educators to come into Klein’s confidence. Many considered Nadelstern to be Klein’s natural successor.

Formerly in charge of teaching and learning, Deputy Chancellor Santiago Taveras was made the head of community engagement last July. Before taking a job at Tweed, he founded two high school in the Bronx: the Banana Kelly High School and the Urban Assembly Academy for Careers in Sports. He was also an instructional superintendent in Manhattan.

Deputy Chancellor for Accountability, Shael Polakow Suransky, also has a background in education. He founded two small high schools — one of them, Bronx International High School, is for recent immigrants. He has a BA in education and an MA in educational leadership from the Bank Street College of Education. He also graduated from the Broad Superintendents Academy, a foundation-funded leadership program meant to prepare a new breed of management-minded education officials.

Marc Sternberg is the department’s newest deputy chancellor. The founder and former principal of the Bronx Lab School, he returned to the city after a stint working at the White House to become head of the division of portfolio planning. There, Sternberg is overseeing the city’s efforts to close low-performing schools.

In July of 2009, Klein added a cabinet-level position focused on issues facing English language learners and students with special needs. His appointment, Laura Rodriguez, has worked in the city schools since 1978.

John White, who is currently the deputy chancellor for talent, labor and innovation, was formerly in charge of the office of portfolio planning. White, whose name has been included on short lists for the head of the Newark school system, is also a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy. He was also the executive director of Teach for America’s Chicago branch.

A spokeswoman for the city Department of Education declined to comment on the panel’s vote and Steiner’s proposal.

Last week, when Steiner named the eight people who would serve on the panel, many observed that it appeared tilted in the mayor’s favor. Three of the panel members had worked for Chancellor Joel Klein in the past and several more had financial ties to the mayor.

The panel met for the first time this afternoon at the local offices of the state education department. Panel members met for just over two hours before delivering their vote to Steiner. When outgoing Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was granted a waiver, the advisory panel met just once.

In a statement, Steiner thanked the panel for their thoughtful consideration of Black’s credentials. “I will weigh their advice and insight as I consider the decision before me,” he said.

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