Mayor Michael Bloomberg stunned New York City’s political establishment by choosing Cathleen Black, a media executive with zero experience in education whom he had met at a dinner party, as his schools chancellor. So lacking was she in credentials that special arrangements had to be made in order to qualify her legally for the post. Yesterday, after Black had been on the job for 95 days, Bloomberg fired her. The
, reproduced below, is well worth reading. For pure embarrassment to a political leader who richly deserves it, one could not do better than this.
April 7, 2011
After 3 Months, Mayor Replaces Schools Leader
By MICHAEL BARBARO, SHARON OTTERMAN and JAVIER C. HERNANDEZ
This article was reported by Michael Barbaro, Sharon Otterman and Javier C. Hernandez and written by Mr. Barbaro.
Cathleen P. Black, the publishing executive thrust into the improbable role of New York City’s school chancellor, resigned Thursday on the 95th day of her tenure after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told her in a blunt meeting that her troubled appointment could not be salvaged.
The mayor announced he would replace Ms. Black with Dennis M. Walcott, a seasoned and likable deputy mayor, who, unlike Ms. Black, has deep education experience. He attended the city’s public schools and taught kindergarten.
The decision to remove Ms. Black represents a rare step by Mr. Bloomberg, who takes pride in standing behind his deputies in the face of public criticism.
But it had become increasingly evident that the appointment of Ms. Black, whom the mayor had personally championed, was dragging down his personal popularity, which was already damaged by the city’s difficulties responding to the blizzard that paralyzed New York in December.
In recent days, Mr. Bloomberg agonized over the chancellor’s future, aides said, surveying top officials about whether she could survive. He blamed himself for Ms. Black’s embattled term.
“I take full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out as either of us had hoped or expected,” he said during a news conference.
Ms. Black, 66, was surprised when Mr. Bloomberg called her to a meeting at 9 a.m. on Thursday at his office in City Hall and said to her, according to those told of the conversation, “This is not working out.”
Valerie Salembier, the publisher of Harper’s Bazaar and a close friend, said: “I would say that Cathie is disappointed. No, that she is very disappointed.”
Friends say Ms. Black was well aware in recent weeks that her already shaky position had become more tenuous, especially after a series of high-profile resignations of top education department officials.
But Ms. Black—a supremely confident former president at Hearst Magazines who moved in the same Upper East Side circles as the billionaire mayor—believed until the end that she would win over even those who railed against her. She was planning a major address at Columbia Teachers College as an effort to reintroduce herself to the public and shore up her education credentials.
“She said for three months, ‘If they knew me, they’d like me,’ ” Ms. Salembier said.
In a brief appearance outside of her Park Avenue apartment, Ms. Black called it “a great privilege to serve the city of New York and the mayor for three months,” and added that she had used her sudden free time to buy a pair of sneakers.
While there did not appear to be one precipitating event that led to Ms. Black’s ouster, over the last several weeks she steadily lost the support of her top lieutenants at the Education Department, many of whom had complained directly to the mayor about her performance, according to at least two dozen people interviewed. Her dismissal appeared cathartic to department staffers, who applauded loudly when Mr. Walcott’s appointment was announced.
Though Mr. Bloomberg chose Ms. Black for her management acumen, the education officials said she had become a feeble figure within the department, frequently sitting silently in high-level meetings and deferring to lower-level aides. Education officials used to a culture of kinetic innovation under her predecessor, Joel I. Klein, felt they were now in a holding pattern, without a real leader.
Ms. Black struggled to grasp the complexities of the city’s budget process, despite intensive tutorial sessions that began on the day of her appointment and, according to advisers, never really stopped.
When her staff sought to prepare her for television interviews, through mock question-and-answer sessions, she tripped over basic facts and figures, including the process for deciding which schools to close.
Aides decided she was largely unfit for such high-profile appearances and all but ruled them out.
At times, those deputies seemed to betray their lack of confidence. Two weeks ago, at a public meeting of the city’s education officials, Ms. Black was asked a question about a charter school’s relocation. As she leaned forward to answer, the general counsel at the Education Department nearly pushed her aside as he seized the microphone and replied on her behalf. Ms. Black shrunk back and looked on politely, before giving her own brief response.
While Ms. Black struggled to gain her bearings, the department increasingly appeared, to many inside, to be losing its own, backing down from decisions and showing uncharacteristic uncertainty during a tumultuous time for the city’s schools.
“Her appointment was bad from the beginning,” said Lewis A. Fidler, a councilman from southeast Brooklyn. “It wasn’t properly vetted. It wasn’t properly thought out.”
Friends say the administration kept Ms. Black too cloistered, but her public appearances caused deep anxieties. When parents protesting the closing of a neighborhood schools mocked her after she complained that she could not be heard above their shouting, Ms. Black shocked her own aides by mocking them right back. “Awwww,” the crowd groaned in false sympathy. “Awwww,” she moaned sarcastically in return, in a moment captured by television cameras.
During a session with parents in Lower Manhattan, Ms. Black cracked a joke about crowded schools in the area, asking, “Could we just have some birth control for a while?”
Those in attendance were mortified. A few days later, Ms. Black called the woman whose question prompted the crack, Julie Menin, the chairwoman of the local community board, to apologize. Ms. Menin recalled, “I left the meeting telling people I knew she would not make it.”
Ms. Black, despite her problems, threw herself into the task, putting in long hours as she tried to master the job and the city’s politics.
“The mayor has thrown Cathie under the school bus,” said Patricia Carbine, a close friend of Ms. Black’s since the 1970s. “She never had the chance to prove how capable and intelligent a person she is, and I so much regret that, and I have to believe that she regrets that in spades.”
About a week ago, Mr. Bloomberg, convinced that he had to act, began his own fact-finding mission, reaching out quietly to his staff members and senior Education Department officials to ask them whether Ms. Black could be an effective chancellor. In those conversations, he acknowledged a dilemma: He did not want to turn his back on somebody he had personally recruited and insisted on selecting without consulting top advisers, but he recognized that there was a consensus among her staff that she was failing.
The feedback was almost uniformly negative, with some warning that the mayor’s own legacy on education was in danger. By Wednesday night, Mr. Bloomberg decided Ms. Black had to go. During a gala dinner for a major Jewish group at the Pierre Hotel, he pulled aside Mr. Klein, the former chancellor, to tell him that he would replace Ms. Black with Mr. Walcott.
Ms. Black appears to have been among the last to find out. At about 8 a.m. Thursday, an aide to Mr. Walcott called Laura Scott, the principal of Public School 10 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and asked her to arrange for a group of fifth graders to attend a press conference at City Hall, where they would serve as the backdrop for an announcement. The aide did not tell Ms. Scott the topic of the event—Ms. Black’s resignation.
About an hour later, the mayor met with Ms. Black at City Hall. In his private office, on the first floor, Mr. Bloomberg told her that her position was no longer tenable. She had become the story, not the schools, he said, distracting her staff and the public. “We have to put the focus back on the kids,” he said.
Ms. Black did not put up a fight. She told the mayor that she understood and that she would resign. She took a final walk through City Hall’s grand marble rotunda, exiting through the back door, and made the short walk over to the Education Department, where she assembled her cabinet and told them of what she called a “mutual decision” by her and the mayor.
She drafted and signed a letter of resignation that wished her successor “the best of luck.”
Then the former schools chancellor left for home.
Reporting was contributed by David W. Chen, David M. Halbfinger, Ashley Parker and Jeremy W. Peters.