Updated — At one of Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s first town hall events last year, very soon after her “beautiful day” comments landed on the cover of the city’s tabloids, she faced a lot of angry questions. Parents were upset about their children’s bus routes, special education services, and (of course) the city’s snow day decisions, and they were all demanding answers.
The response was nothing new for one of those events, of which Fariña has had dozens. But that night, a few parents were especially worked up.
One after another, Fariña told each parent to talk to Kathleen Grimm, the department’s longtime deputy chancellor of operations. Grimm guided each parent to a seat in the front row of the auditorium, where she calmed them, took down their contact information, and promised to try to help. By doing so she let Fariña keep the event upbeat — the chancellor even cracked a “beautiful day” joke — while Grimm dealt with the nitty-gritty concerns.
After Chancellor Fariña announced Wednesday that Grimm had died, just weeks after retiring, Grimm’s colleagues are remembering her for playing that role for the entire school system. By the end of her tenure, she was overseeing school safety, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction, and was admired by education officials who agree on little else.
“The Department of Education has lost a remarkable leader and a champion for all of our students—and I have lost a friend and mentor, whose spirit will continue to guide me personally and professionally,” Fariña said in a statement.
Grimm joined the Department of Education in 2002, one of Chancellor Joel Klein’s original five deputies. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had just assumed control of the city’s schools.
Over the next 12-and-a-half years, Grimm was the public face of the department at contentious City Council hearings, including the memorable hearings on toilet paper held by Eva Moskowitz, then head of the City Council’s education committee.
In her role overseeing construction, the capital budget, and the Blue Book, she faced heavy criticism from parents, advocates, and elected officials who said the city wasn’t doing enough to add seats and decrease class sizes and that the city’s co-location policies were unjust. Repeated changes to bus routes on her watch also angered parents and City Council members.
Before those City Council hearings or meetings with bus drivers unions, Klein told Chalkbeat, “I would say, get your flak jacket. And she smiled and plowed through.”
“What I’m trying to find the words for is the combination of equanimity and devotion,” Klein said. “She was the glue around the place. And she kept the ship steady in some very tumultuous times.”
In a letter to education department employees Wednesday afternoon, Fariña also noted that Grimm made each day memorable with “her impeccable personal demeanor and droll sense of humor.”
“Some of our more casually-dressed colleagues will recall being exhorted to grab a tie from the collection she kept under her desk,” Fariña said in the letter. “Kathleen had high standards for everybody, including herself.”
Here’s some of what her colleagues are remembering about Grimm.
Veronica Conforme, the department’s chief financial officer from Dec. 2010 to Oct. 2011 and its chief operating officer until 2013, said that Grimm encouraged other women to assume leadership roles. Grimm’s own work put her in close contact with custodians, construction, bus drivers — not professions known for female authority figures.
“Having a role model as a woman in an organization where often times you don’t see a woman in charge, she was very tough. She was very cognizant of mentoring other women,” Conforme said. “She was extremely strong and had really high standards of what needed to be accomplished in city government.”
But Grimm stayed out of the education policy debates that polarized the city during the Bloomberg years. When it came to providing services, “People wouldn’t overstep their bounds there because they knew that was her charge. But she didn’t have any particular perspective.”
Former Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said Grimm was a willing mentor when he made the jump from a school principal to the Department of Education’s complex bureaucracy.
“Literally, she took me by the hand as a new deputy chancellor and guided me,” Sternberg said.
As head of the portfolio office that oversaw use of the city’s 1,200 school buildings and opened and closed schools, Sternberg worked closely with Grimm, who was particularly adept at handling sensitive issues.
“You wanted Kathleen in the foxhole with you,” he said. “She could not be rattled.”
But for someone who lasted so long in the Bloomberg administration and then continued as a top official under de Blasio, Grimm was always a “truth-teller,” Sternberg said. “She was never afraid to speak truth to whatever power she was sitting with, whether it was the union, the mayor, or advocates.”
Chancellor Carmen Fariña:
“Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm was one of the most loyal and devoted public servants I have ever met,” Fariña said in a statement. “She understood the meaning of service to our schools and City, and inspired passion and loyalty from all those who worked alongside her. Thanks to her dedication and leadership, our school facilities are now stronger than they’ve ever been. I will dearly miss Kathleen and the class, grace, and vision with which she served everyone around her and the people of New York. I know that the work she so loved doing will lift our students and schools for years to come.”
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg:
“Kathleen Grimm positively affected the lives of a generation of students. She was deeply dedicated to her work, and we relied upon her to spearhead many of our most difficult reform efforts. Smart and demanding, she was never afraid to speak her mind – and always willing to stand up for our students. She made everyone around her better, and she made our schools better, too. On behalf of so many people in our administration who deeply respected her and benefited from her leadership, I extend my heartfelt condolences to her family.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio:
Kathleen Grimm was a committed and talented public servant, dedicated to giving our kids the best education. Our whole city feels her loss.
— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) February 18, 2015
AFT President Randi Weingarten:
Just saw Kathleen Grimm, former Dep’y Chancellor died of cancer- RIP Kathy- always found her to be a caring,professional voice at NYC BOE
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) February 18, 2015
Former department spokesman Devon Puglia:
Was very sad to hear about Kathleen Grimm this morning — such an amazing person who I loved working with. She will be deeply, deeply missed — Devon Puglia (@DevonPuglia) February 18, 2015
City Councilman Chaim Deutsch:
Feel free to leave other memories in the comments, or email Community Editor Stephanie Snyder.