Volume 20, Number 50 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 8 - 14, 2010
Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds
The steps of the Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street were packed as community members protested Cathie Black’s appointment as the new chancellor for the Department of Education.
Waiver for Black prompts protests and lawsuits
To say some Downtown educators, parents and elected officials are unhappy about Cathie Black being appointed the Department of Education’s new chancellor is an understatement. They made their opinion loud and clear on the steps of Tweed Courthouse last Thursday, arguing that Black has neither the qualifications nor the experience the job requires. And some are taking their argument all the way to the state supreme court.
Parent and teacher groups in Lower Manhattan and around the city are now preparing to file lawsuits against the state for what they consider to be a faulty hiring process.
Members of the Deny the Waiver Coalition, formed in part by Community Education Council District 1 President Lisa Donlan and C.E.C. District 2 member Shino Tanikawa, filed suit Tuesday challenging Black’s appointment. The coalition claims Mayor Bloomberg’s decision is “arbitrary” and “capricious,” according to Donlan, who is privy to the case. Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, the lead prosecutor in the case, did not respond by press time.
The former publishing executive has neither a master’s degree nor three years’ worth of teaching, two of the state requirements to become chancellor. New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner granted Black a waiver, but only after the mayor agreed to a compromise. To make up for Black’s lack of educational experience the mayor appointed a second- in-command, 38-year-old Shael Polakow-Suransky, a former teacher and a member of the former chancellor Joel Klein’s administration. Bloomberg maintains, however, that Black’s vast managerial experience as chairwoman of the Hearst Corporation puts her in good stead to lead New York City’s public school system.
“[Black’s] innovations are critically important to success in the 21st century,” the waiver reads, “including success in the learning environment.”
But according to Lower Manhattan attorney Peter Herb, the argument for granting the waiver likely wouldn’t pass muster in state supreme court.
“There’s a reason the regulations were written this way – because an educator is supposed to be in charge,” said Herb, who sent his two children to P.S. 3 and is a former member of the school’s Parent-Teacher Association. “I believe that if [Steiner] is found to have acted contrary to the [state Department of Education] regulations, the court would void the improper grant of the waiver.”
A waiver can be granted to those whose “exceptional training and experience are the substantial equivalent of such requirements and qualify such persons for the duties of a superintendent of schools,” according to the regulations.
Herb noted that these “substitutes,” however, are not clearly defined. The waiver would likely be deemed inappropriate in state court, he added, since Black has none of the qualifications.
“If she didn’t have teaching experience, and never completed her [educational leadership] certificate, but she taught for a while, that might be one,” Herb said. “But she doesn’t meet any of the criteria.”
“It’s called, in layman’s terms, cheating,” said State Senator Bill Perkins to a group of citywide protestors of Black — and of mayoral control, as a whole — that demonstrated on the steps of City Hall last Thursday. “We’re teaching our children that cheating counts.”
Others at the rally said that Black’s appointment is an example of the autocratic nature of mayoral control, implemented by Bloomberg shortly after taking office in 2002.
“She has no clue about educational values,” said Corinna Lindenberg, a member of C.E.C. District One and a Lower East Side parent. She and others at the rally were worried that Bloomberg simply hired her because of her prestige in corporate publishing, and because she is a friend of Bloomberg’s girlfriend, Diana Taylor.
But Downtown educators are dissatisfied with this move as well.
“If we have a hiring freeze, how can we afford to have two people do one position? Just because the mayor wants it that way?” said protestor and Spruce Street School parent Maria Muentes.
“Having him by her side is not a solution to her not having [education] credentials,” said Donlan. And despite what the waiver suggests, she and others are skeptical that Polakow-Suransky will have any pedagogical authority over Black.
“When push comes to shove, it’s going to be Cathie Black calling all the shots,” said Tanikawa.
“I can’t imagine anything the chancellor would disagree with would stand,” echoed Herb. “The person who’s got the power — Black — will say, ‘no.’”