Monday, November 15, 2010

Fade to Black

Just when we were thinking that the Bloomberg appointment of Cathie Black-after a long and exhaustive search of the mayor's old stack of business cards-was a done deal, comes the news that the State ED commissioner, David Steiner, was convening a committee to review Ms. Black's non-qualifications. To get the idea of just how far the Earth's tectonic plates may have shifted, read Henry Stern''s volte face on the appointment: "The prospect for the granting of a waiver to Cathie Black so she can serve as New York City's school chancellor may have dimmed a bit in the last two days. For one thing, the New York Times reported today, in an article by Winnie Hu, that the man who will decide whether to grant the waiver, State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner, "will convene a screening panel consisting of representatives of the State Education Department and educational organizations to make a recommendation to Dr. Steiner." The commissioner's spokesman "would not speculate on how long that would take."

So much for Mike Bloomberg's desire to do it his own secretive way in order to expedite this, "in the middle of the school year." But we do really get a kick out of the fact that Bloomberg feels that the critics of his choice don't understand what this job is all about: "Bloomberg also dismissed critics who have called on the state education commissioner to deny a waiver to Cathie Black, the media executive he tapped to replace Chancellor Joel Klein on Tuesday. Black, currently the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, needs a waiver because state law requires the city’s chancellor have education credentials and experience in schools; Black has neither. “It just goes to show they have no understanding of what the job is,” Bloomberg said of the critics calling for the waiver to be denied. The mayor said the school’s chief needs to be an expert manager."
Well, if that's the case Mike, why don't you petition the legislature to remove the statutory requirements because they obviously-at least in the mind of someone who never stepped into a NYC public school before 2001-have no correlation to what the job needs in the way of credentials and experience. As one NY Daily News letter writer said: "Congratulations to Cathie Black on her appointment as chancellor of the city schools ("Just who is Cathie Black?" Nov. 10). Now where can I get a $250,000-a-year job for which I don't meet any of the qualifications?"

But the Black momentum-in spite of all of the Morticia/Murdoch efforts-may be grinding to a halt, Stern's observations here are prescient: "For another, two of Chancellor Joel Klein's deputies have announced their resignations, and others are expected to leave as well. One reason cited in favor of Ms. Black was that the Klein management team would be available to assist her as she familiarized herself with the educational universe. No truly independent screening panel of educators is likely to conclude that no experience whatsoever in their professional field is adequate preparation for the most difficult and complex job in local public education. If they felt that way, they would be expressing the view that their own professional qualifications had little value, and that any corporate executive could fill the positions they now hold."

And this doesn't account for the growing political chorus of disbelievers-folks who can't believe how ersatz this so-called search was: "Mayor Bloomberg didn't formally interview any candidates to head the largest school system in the country before he tapped accomplished business leader Cathie Black for the position, sources told The Post. Bloomberg said this week that he had conducted a "public search" to replace outgoing Schools Chancellor Joel Klein -- but sources close to City Hall said that process did not include bringing in candidates for questioning. "The word that I'm getting is there never were interviews, there never was a search," said one veteran education administrator. "This was Bloomberg's plan. He offered it to her, and she accepted."

The WSJ reports on the growing disbelief: "State Senator-elect Tony Avella, a former councilman from Queens who has been a longtime critic of the current schools chancellor, called the selection process a “disgrace.” Avella sent the state education commissioner a letter earlier this week requesting Black be denied a waiver. “You have to bring the public along with you, and you do that by reaching out to them and involving them in the process,” Avella said. “Clearly Mike Bloomberg didn’t do this.” Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College, questioned the scope of the mayor’s chancellor search. “Where did Bloomberg do his search? His Rolodex/Outlook,” Muzzio said in a email. “His hubris is breathtaking.”

Even longtime Bloomberg admirer-and biographer-Joyce Purnick, expresses doubts about the wisdom of the mayor's choice: "His unorthodoxy has worked for him, and he is at it again. Now, he's taking one of his gambles not with his own money but with the city’s fortunes and the future of its school children. Gambles sometimes pay off. Sometimes they do not. This time, the odds are daunting. Running a public school system, dealing with the teachers union and the custodians union and the principals union, with legislators in the union’s pocket, with teachers themselves and a dizzyingly diverse student population, is in no conceivable way like running Cosmopolitan or USA Today."

And in choosing Black, Mike Bloomberg didn't step one foot out of his upper class comfort zone: "Cathie Black’s most persuasive credentials for the schools job seem to be a friendship with the mayor’s girlfriend, Diana Taylor, and membership in the same Upper East Side social orbit as Ms. Taylor and Bloomberg. Black’s husband,Thomas E. Harvey, is a significant contributor to Republican causes, including Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential race and the Republican National Committee. The couple has, like Ms. Taylor and the mayor, spent leisurely days at the Allen & Company’s annual gathering in Sun Valley, Idaho, the summer retreat for the super-rich that few regular folk know much about because the media are banned. “He didn’t go outside when he chose Cathie Black, he went inside,’’ said a Bloomberg friend and supporter, unhappy with the new schools chief. “It’s him and Diana, Cathie and Tom.”

As Purnick goes on to point out, the choice of Cathie Black meant overlooking real quality appointees that were free and available-like the well-respected Michelle Rhee: "Because the selection was swathed in secrecy, coming as a surprise even to most of the mayor’s confidants, his rationale is a matter of speculation. One theory: he picked her for her reputation as an effective manager. (At magazines?) Another is that he didn’t go for any of the country’s established educators, like Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools, because they would come with baggage. That they would. They also would have experience."

Now the only real question remaining is whether the mayor has finally rolled craps-and will be forced to eat crow because someone like Steiner has the stones to stand up to his autocratic hauteur. We'll give Purnick the last word: "Going the traditional route would have been too easy for Mike Bloomberg. In his view, his political inexperience served him and New York well, so he’s figuring that Ms. Black’s inexperience will serve the city’s million-plus school children well. Now that is one high-risk bet. New Yorkers might prefer better odds."