Cathie Black out as N.Y.C. schools chief in Bloomberg bid to limit damage

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg fired controversial schools chancellor Cathie Black just three months after he'd named the publishing executive to head the nation's largest school system.

Mark Lennihan/AP
New York City Schools Chancellor Cathie Black speaks with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg during a groundbreaking ceremony in New York. Black resigned Thursday, April 7, after a rocky three months that included parents heckling her at board meetings, plummeting poll numbers and the departures of several deputy chancellors.
Henny Ray Abrams/AP
Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott answers questions after he was appointed schools chancellor by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg Thursday, April 7.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has had to replace public schools chancellor Cathie Black just three months after he made what many observers saw as a highly unusual – and questionable – appointment to oversee the nation’s largest school system.

Both the beginning and the end to Ms. Black’s short and tumultuous tenure were an embarrassment to Mayor Bloomberg, who’s in the middle of his third and last term as mayor, dropping in the polls and trying to buff up his legacy.

Black’s replacement – Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott – is everything Black was not.

Like Bloomberg, her background was in publishing. She was chairman of Hearst Magazines – a “superstar manager,” Bloomberg had called her – but she had no experience in either education or government.

Mr. Walcott had been a kindergarten teacher for 10 years and a foster-care worker, and he founded the Frederick Douglass Brother-to-Brother program, a mentoring program for boys.

As deputy mayor for education and community development, Walcott oversaw the Department of Education, the New York City Housing Authority, the Department of Youth and Community Development, and the Mayor’s Office of Adult Education.

More to the point for many New Yorkers, while Black had sent her children to exclusive private schools, Walcott’s grandchildren are the fourth generation in a family that attended New York City public schools.

"I'm just a guy from Queens whose parents were raised in Harlem," Walcott said at Thursday's City Hall press conference. "I consider myself very blessed and very lucky to be asked."

Education-watchers were not surprised by Black’s departure.

Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, a nonpartisan education think tank in Washington, predicted as much back in December.

'Cathie Black will be gone by Easter'

“Cathie Black will be gone by Easter,” he wrote on his blog. “A betting man might say that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will stubbornly hold fast to his choice, but I foresee a breaking point a few months hence.”

“It’ll go down like this,” Petrilli wrote. “Her gaffes continue, she loses support even among middle-class Gotham parents, she botches the release of teacher effectiveness data, and she stumbles with the politics of budget-cutting. Worried about a mass exodus of the Department of Education’s senior staff, and sensing vulnerability on a marquee issue in his presidential run, Bloomberg finds an excuse to show her the door.”

Several of Black’s senior staff did in fact leave to work in other cities, and she rankled parents with several off-hand comments – including the suggestion that the answer to classroom overcrowding is birth control. It didn’t help that Bloomberg’s budget for 2012 included cutting many teaching positions.

Bloomberg needed no specific excuse to replace Black, and he took responsibility for the failure of his appointee.

"She and I met this morning and we have mutually agreed that it is in the city's best interests if she steps down as chancellor,” the mayor said Thursday at a City Hall press conference. “I take full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out as either of us had hoped or expected."

Black had lost not only Bloomberg’s confidence but that of a great majority of New Yorkers, according to recent polls.

A NY1-Marist poll Monday gave her just a 17 percent approval rate, the same dismal report card reflected in a Quinnipiac poll last month.

Poll numbers bad for Black and Bloomberg

Bloomberg himself has suffered politically as the result of his misstep in public education in New York City, which has about 1.1 million students in nearly 1,700 public schools.

A Marist poll last month showed a steep drop in how New Yorkers think he’s doing on education – from 53 percent approval in July 2009 to 65 percent disapproval today (including 67 percent of those with children in public schools).

Overall, the poll showed Bloomberg’s approval rate at just 40 percent with 53 percent believing the Big Apple is moving in the wrong direction.

Some New Yorkers may be finding him a bit shop-worn.

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, calls Bloomberg’s political affliction “third term-itis.”

“If you mix together the rough winter weather, a sluggish economy, and the ongoing battle over public schools, he’s spending too much of his political capital,” Miringoff said in releasing his most recent poll.

"It's an embarrassment for Bloomberg. They made a poor choice and had to backtrack," Hunter College public policy Professor Joseph Viteritti told the Reuters news agency. "He had the choice of admitting the mistake and making a change or continue hemorrhaging politically. It's good they moved quickly."

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