Schools Chief Cathie Black Steps Down, Deputy Mayor to Replace Her

State education commissioner also announces he will leave later this year.

By Sara Frazier
|  Friday, Apr 8, 2011  |  Updated 11:38 PM EDT
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Schools Chief Cathie Black Resigns

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Cathie Black (left) resigned as chancellor of the nation's largest public school system. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott (right) replaces her.

Embattled Schools Chancellor Cathie Black abruptly stepped down Thursday after three rocky months as head of the nation's largest school system, a job she got despite having no experience as an educator.

Mayor Bloomberg announced at a City Hall news conference that his longtime deputy mayor for education, Dennis Walcott, will replace the former Hearst executive. In an odd twist, State Education Commissioner David Steiner also announced Thursday that he plans to leave his post and will depart later this year.

Black said in a statement Thursday: "It has become increasingly apparent that my ability to serve successfully as the chancellor of New York City Schools is not possible."

She blamed "outside forces" that have become "so intense that education reform is potentially jeopardized."

Bloomberg, acknowledging one of the most embarrassing defeats of his nine years in office, said the decision was "mutual."

"I take full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out as either of us had hoped and expected," he added.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said his members are "tired of this being about politics and not about the kids."

Black, who did not attend the City Hall announcement, was appointed in November of last year and took over from Joel Klein, the previous chancellor, in January. She required a waiver from the state because of a law requiring the chancellor to hold certain education credentials.

The former publishing executive's reign was beset with problems from the moment she was appointed, when skeptics said her lack of education credentials made her unqualified to run a public school system.

Then, two weeks into her new job, she was recorded in a meeting making a joke that "birth control" might solve the city's issue of overcrowded classrooms. In February she was heckled and booed at a public forum on school closings.

Four deputy chancellors have left the education department since she took over, the latest two this week.

A Marist College/NY1 poll released Monday found that just 17 percent of those polled said she was doing a good or excellent job, down from 21 percent in early February.

"We both agreed that the story had become her, and it should be about the students," Bloomberg said at City Hall.

The decision to let Black go is an unusual move for Bloomberg, a billionaire former CEO who is known for sticking with his aides and commissioners even when they make mistakes and fall out of public favor.

It is especially out of character for Bloomberg to admit fault, particularly for a decision involving education. The mayor has staked his legacy on improving the school system, which was overseen by a school board until he persuaded the state to give him control in 2002.

He was roundly criticized for the secretive way he chose Black with no notice or public search, which is also how he chose Walcott to replace her.

A coalition that had campaigned against Black's appointment from the start said in a statement Thursday that her resignation "closes another sad chapter" in the mayor's control over education.

"Mayor Bloomberg's political treatment of education is leading to disaster for our children," said the group, called the Deny Waiver Coalition.

Steiner, the state commissioner who announced his upcoming departure Thursday, had a role in Black's appointment. He ultimately approved the waiver she needed for the job.

He made no mention of her in his statement and did not give a reason for his resignation.

The news that Black was leaving got mixed reactions among parents.

"She should have been given more time," Whaeeha Ahmed said. "It seems to early to ask someone to step down."

Kevin Doherty, a parent who is also an outspoken education advocate, said "it's time we really look at individuals with experience in the school system to help lead us into the future."
 
Walcott, a former kindergarten teacher who lives in southeast Queens, joined the administration during Bloomberg's first term in 2002. In his post as deputy mayor for education and community development, he has helped oversee the Department of Education and several other agencies.

He grew up in New York City and attended public schools.

He said Thursday that he's "just a guy from Queens" and is honored to have the job.

Teachers and parents shouldn't expect major policy changes from Walcott, who said he planned to continue Bloomberg's efforts.

"I have a simple goal -- to continue that progress and reforms that the mayor has made so special to all of us," he said.

Walcott has masters degrees in education and social work. He still does not have the credentials required by the state, including the three years of teaching experience, and will need a waiver.

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