Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Searchin', Searchin,' Everywhere..."

Just like in the old Lieber and Stoller lyric, Mike Bloomberg searched all over-"just like a Northwest Mountie"-and found the perfect candidate for schools chancellor; someone with absolutely none of the required statutory credentials. But the search charade itself may prove to be too great a barrier to entry for Cathie Black to overcome-and Norm Siegel may be just the lawyer to throw a monkey wrench into the mayor's monkey business.

NY1 has the story: "Parents, educators and civil rights advocates held a demonstration on the steps of Manhattan's Tweed Courthouse on Sunday against Cathie Black becoming the mayor's replacement for schools chancellor, saying that the publishing executive lacks proper experience in the educational field. Speaking out at the headquarters of the Department of Education, the protesters said Black was only chosen because she is a businesswoman who is friends with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The state education commissioner would need to issue a waiver to allow Black to be the chancellor, because she is venturing for the first time into the educational field. "Ms. Black appears to lack the educational credentials and qualifications for the appointment to New York City's schools chancellor. Second, there appears to have been no public search, contrary to what Mayor Bloomberg said on Friday," said civil rights attorney Norman Siegel."

But without any search process, wouldn't the Black selection run afoul of the equal opportunity law? Siegel and civil liberties attorney Michael Myers believe so, and have drafted a letter that is doubling as an online petition. Here's the relevant equal opportunity passagee: "The fact that Mayor Bloomberg did not undertake a public search in accordance with equal employment opportunity principles in itself raises significant public policy issues, as well as the specter of cronyism. How can it be that the position of leader of one of the nation’s largest school systems can be filled in such a cavalier manner—without any kind of notice or recruitment period for the consideration of capable and talented individuals—persons who are educators, who have the statutory qualifications and certification, and the requisite experience and skills to understand the best practices of pedagogy? The school superintendent for the New York City School District should have knowledge of curriculum and instruction and assessment, as well as extensive teaching experience."

And the protest is building into a crescendo-with City Council Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson joining the outcry: "The head of the City Council’s education committee and a vocal critic of mayoral control is now speaking out against the mayor’s choice of Cathleen P. Black to oversee New York City schools. “Cathie Black meets none of the professional experience requirements, apparently satisfying only the undergraduate graduation standard,” the committee chairman, Councilman Robert Jackson, wrote in a letter to David M. Steiner, the state education commissioner."

The NY Daily News-also focusing on the selection process-is reporting that the meticulous manner in which Mayor Bloomberg applied for the Joel Klein waiver may come back to bite him on the derriere: "The first time he picked a schools chancellor, Mayor Bloomberg set up a search committee and put an ad in the paper. "It's standard procedure when you are looking for a top-level executive," a spokesman explained, as dozens of candidates were vetted. Eight years later, Bloomberg announced his second schools chancellor without even asking his top aides for advice."

Can it be that after eight years of buying electoral support, Mike Bloomberg no longer feels constrained by  any rules? "More than anything else in the past year, the mayor's secret process to name Cathie Black as New York's new chancellor shows how Bloomberg's approach has hardened since he took office. The first-term Bloomberg was relentlessly curious about how the city worked, grilling everyone around him for ideas to make it run better. The third-term Bloomberg thinks he knows the answers."

In addition, Bloomberg is so arrogant-in a l'├ętat, c'est moi fashion-that he doesn't even bother to feign honesty: "I did have a public search," he insisted last week without a shred of evidence. "In the end, it is the mayor that picks the chancellor."

But secrecy and hubris could be Bloomberg Achilles heal here: "Now, though, Bloomberg seems to believe there's no point asking parents or teachers - or civic leaders or education experts - who they'd want as Klein's replacement. The way he ignored them, he might as well have poked them in the eye. Even Bloomberg's top aides, who could have counseled him on how not to hurt his own interests, were kept in the dark until the Klein-Black change was presented as a done deal. "Where was at least the outreach that builds a grudging acceptance of what you've done?" asked one top first-term official. "In his first term there were more people around him who challenged him and gave him reality checks," added another Bloomberg veteran. "He is more controlling of his agenda of what he does now."

When the NY Times is resorting to satire-questioning whether Black's private school sojourns qualify her for the chancellor's job-than we might be seeing a turning of the tide. And even a reliable cheer leader like Henry Stern is speaking out critically: "To select a chancellor with no background in education is a daring leap of faith,” said Henry J. Stern, a civic advocate and former city parks commissioner. “It’s very difficult to make an argument on the merits, unless you take the position that what you need is an executive."

The outcry may be reaching critical mass-as the Times reports: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has been frank about why he took pains to keep his search for a new schools chancellor secret, saying he wanted to avoid a public spectacle. But a spectacle is exactly what Mr. Bloomberg has unleashed, and one week after announcing his choice of Cathleen P. Black, a publishing executive, to succeed Joel I. Klein at the helm of the country’s largest school system, the mayor’s aides are trying to fend off mounting skepticism about her selection."

But, how do you defend the indefensible? "City Council members are asking the state to deny Ms. Black the waiver she would need to fill the post. Lawmakers and parents active in the schools are calling for public hearings. Even some of the mayor’s supporters are questioning his decision. The leader of the city’s teachers’ union said the furor underscored how poorly he believed Mr. Bloomberg had handled Ms. Black’s selection. “This woman is under complete attack,” said Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers. “You should manage the process so you don’t leave the candidate open for attack right from the beginning.”

Meanwhile, mayoral aides are scrambling in full damage control-after having been completely left in the dark over the selection: "In the meantime, Mr. Bloomberg has dispatched his top deputies to help prepare Ms. Black for her debut. On Monday, two deputy mayors and a legislative aide were seen outside her offices at Hearst Tower in Midtown. Ms. Black has been immersing herself in the issues of education, including budgets and reading curriculum, the individual close the process said."

Where this all leads is any one's guess. But, as Auntie Mame once remarked, "Get me my shawl, I feel the winds of change blowing" The mayor may have finally overstepped his boundaries, and his arrogant disregard for proper procedures-as well as the feelings of the myriad public school stakeholders-may have begun to dissolve the good will that he has worked so hard to create over the past nine years.

Once lost, however, it may be very hard to regenerate. Never underestimate Mike Bloomberg's resources-and be prepared for the-well compensated-defenders to come out of the woodwork (Calling Al Sharpton). But the Cathie Black selection may well become the mayor's Waterloo-or the precipitating event that lead to it.