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Nadelstern: “I have spent years training people to replace me”

After 39 years, Deputy Chancellor Eric Nadelstern is leaving the Department of Education just as new Chancellor Cathie Black is beginning her tenure. In a brief interview with GothamSchools on the day he announced his retirement, Nadelstern gave his take on why he’s leaving and what he’s leaving behind.

What’s the right greeting here?  Congrats?

Well, it’s congratulations and good luck.

So why are you retiring now? And where are you off to?

After almost 40 years I’m ready for new challenges. I’ve had a number of very interesting offers — public, private, not-for-profit — all around my area of expertise. I haven’t decided yet, don’t want to rush it. I may wind up teaching at a university…very strong offer along those lines. Had an offer from a state education department outside of New York…I’m sure when the time comes, my dance card will be full.

In December you were telling people that you’d stay through the year. What changed?

That was my intention. A couple of things really — I turned 60 in October, hopefully you’ll have a chance to find out how reflective [you get] when you reach that milestone.

I had a pension consultation recently and there were financial advantages to making the decision sooner than later. That and talking it over with my family thinking about the kinds of things in life after the DOE. It seemed like the right time.

Does this have anything to do with Chancellor Cathie Black’s arrival?

It’s completely independent. In the weeks I’ve worked with Cathie I’ve not only come to admire her, I’ve come to like her…There’s an enormous amount to learn. I think in an earlier point in my career I [would have liked to work with her]. I think at this stage there are really other things that I’d like to do.

So what’s the DOE going to do? You’ve got large shoes to fill. Is the city going to try to replace you?

Well first — I want to thank you for suggesting [there are] large shoes to fill. I fully expect to read that on your blog…The thing to keep in mind is that I have spent years training people to replace me. Cathie honored me by selecting the deputies that I had trained over time to be her chief aides in the form of Shael Polakow-Suransky as chief academic officer and Veronica Conforme as chief financial officer. I’m thrilled that she has selected the same people that I selected to train.

Does your leaving mean that the department could move away from initiatives you’ve championed?

It doesn’t and should not be taken as such. The things that I’m committed to  — empowerment, choice — the chancellor continues to stay supportive.

Have you been coaching her to bring up to speed? Who will take over that responsibility?

I have been spending time sharing whatever expertise I have. I’ve been impressed with how quickly she learns…Look at this present composition of the cabinet. Shael is a former principal and has worked closely with me for the last 15 years. Santiago Taveras is on the cabinet — he’s also been a principal and a superintendent. Laura Rodriguez has been a regional superintendent and Marc Sternberg has been a principal. This is a cabinet steeped in educational experience.

Any parting words?

I would say this: that history will reveal that the mayor’s first choice for chancellor — an anti-trust litigator — was a brilliant selection. And I’m equally confident that Cathie Black…will be just as good.