Volume 20, Number 36 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | January 19 - 25, 2011

Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds

Cathie Black (left) and Julie Menin (right) at last week’s overcrowding task force meeting where Black made a less than stellar first impression.

Black drops ball at school overcrowding meeting

BY Aline Reynolds

Cathie Black, the city’s new Department of Education chancellor, had little to say at last Thursday’s school overcrowding task force meeting organized by NY State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. But the little that she did say made headlines and sparked outrage around the city.

Task force member Eric Greenleaf, a business professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has done extensive research on the population boom in Lower Manhattan and the resulting overcrowding in the schools. When he presented his latest data to Black on Thursday, showing an estimated need for 1,000 additional seats by 2015, Black made a verbal gaffe that riled up the entire educational community.

“Could we just have some birth control for a while? It would really help us all out,” joked Black.

The comment was “shocking,” according to Downtown parent Deborah Somerville and others.
P.S. 234 parent Tina Schiller, who was opposed to Black’s appointment as chancellor, said she was not surprised by Black’s joke. “It just kind of reiterates the lightness in which the D.O.E. takes our plight,” she said.

Others like Tom Moore, co-president of Millennium High School’s parent-teacher association, merely thought of it as a poor attempt at humor. “I don’t think she meant anything by it, [but] it was probably in retrospect not a good idea,” he said.

People elsewhere around the city also took offense at Black’s comment.

City Councilmember Julissa Ferreras of Queens, chair of the NYC Council’s committee on women’s issues, said she was “appalled and offended” by Black’s statement. “The job of a chancellor,” said Ferreras, “is to ensure that our city’s children are being educated and have the tools to learn — not judge the reproductive choices of women in our city.”

Overcrowding, Ferreras continued, is not a joke to the children and parents in her district who are also dealing with the issue.

D.O.E. Communications Director Natalie Ravitz said in a statement that the chancellor takes the issue of overcrowding “very seriously, which is why she was engaged in a discussion with Lower Manhattan parents on the subject.”

“[Black] regrets if she left a different impression by making an off-handed joke in the course of that conversation,” said Ravitz.

Julie Menin, chair of Community Board 1, said she was “troubled” by Black’s overall feedback, which she considered to be “glib” in that Black didn’t identify plans to combat “the very serious issue of school overcrowding.”

The chancellor made another verbal slip in describing the D.O.E.’s rough financial terrain she is trying to navigate as chancellor.

“I don’t mean this in any [flippant] way,” she told the task force, “but [there are] many Sophie’s choices.”

Her comment was an allusion to the story of Sophie Zawistowski, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, who was forced to choose which of her two children would live and which would die.

Moore and others deemed it a poor analogy. There are a number of other parallels she could have drawn, Moore said. The one that Black went with was in his opinion, “overly dramatic,and probably a little distasteful.”

Menin was upset with the chancellor’s quip.

“Cracking jokes and telling Downtown parents, even in jest, to use more birth control, and referring to the [D.O.E.’s] choices as a ‘Sophie’s choice’ did not demonstrate a real and concrete, on-the-ground understanding of what parents face,” Menin wrote in an e-mail.

“[The D.O.E.] has already made Sophie’s choices,” Schiller said. “They’ve already made clear we’re going to have a segregated system,” insofar as separating out kids by performance level.

In contrast, Silver, who led the task force meeting, was satisfied with Black’s performance. In a written statement, he said he was pleased that Black attended the meeting and was able to hear first-hand from parents.

“Jokes aside,” said Silver, “I think she really heard the message that Lower Manhattan schools are in the midst of an overcrowding crisis, and I am hopeful we can work together to find a solution.”

Tamara Rowe, a parent of a Millennium High School student and a member of the task force, felt cautiously optimistic about Black’s attempt to forge ties with the Downtown education community.

She, like many task force members, appreciated Black’s appearance at the meeting, pointing out that former chancellor Joel Klein never even attended one of Silver’s task force meetings in the two-and-a-half years of its existence while he was chancellor. But Rowe doubts Black’s willingness to change things.

“I think she’s trying to listen,” said Rowe. “I think I won’t know what it really means until I see the results.”

During the meeting, Menin and other task force members disparaged the D.O.E. for not implementing a long-term strategy to relieve overcrowding. “Everything is done piecemeal,” Menin told Black.

The search for more classroom space now, instead of before, when overcrowding was less widespread, is an “absolutely backwards way of doing it,” according to Menin.

Lack of foresight

Members of the task force discussed the lack of foresight the D.O.E. has recently exhibited in accommodating Downtown school children. Several members voiced their concerns about the designation of the 26 Broadway site to an unscreened high school and the giving of empty classroom space in the Tweed Courthouse to an untested charter school.

Black, in her second week on the job, said she has “no gigantic new vision.”
She said she anticipates there to be “tough sledding” in deciding how to allocate the limited sum the D.O.E. will receive in the coming fiscal year. The state is set to release a preliminary version of the 2011-12 budget on February 1.

“Trying to balance all the competing forces is not easy at all,” Black said. “It’s clear that your needs are great, and we’ll try to deal with them as well as we possibly can.”

And while task force members were pleased with her presence at the meeting, many walked away feeling skeptical or discouraged by her plans — or lack thereof — for Lower Manhattan public schools.

According to task force member Shino Tanikawa, also a member of Community Education Council District 2, the chancellor doesn’t seem to have a vision for public schools at all.
“It’s time for her to think about what her priorities are for the city,” said Tanikawa. “You have to do planning. There’s no excuse for it.”

In Greenleaf’s opinion, Black focused on listening, rather than commenting. “She was clearly being very, very cautious. I think we expected that,” he said. What the task force is most interested in, he added, is her actions moving forward in securing more public school seats Downtown.

Beyond her seeming receptiveness to parents’ concerns, “I didn’t get a lot of comfort that anything else was going to change,” said Somerville, a P.S. 276 parent.

Moore was also unimpressed with Black’s lack of urgency as it pertained to the overcrowding issue.

“We were hoping for a little bit more of an acknowledgement from her,” said Moore.
Black’s response to parents’ concerns, Moore added, “gave everyone the impression that she wasn’t going to change any of the plans in front of us right now.”

The next School Overcrowding Task Force meeting is scheduled for Friday, February 4, at Silver’s office at 250 Broadway.

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