New York City School Chancellor Quits

Michele Norris talks with reporter Beth Fertig of member station WNYC about Thursday's surprise announcement that Cathie Black is stepping down as chancellor of the New York City schools. Black's appointment three months ago stunned many because she had no background in education, and her brief tenure was marked by missteps and low public approval ratings.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The woman running the nation's largest public school system has resigned. New York City Schools' Chancellor Cathie Black was only on the job for three months and she has always been controversial.

And for more, we're joined by Beth Fertig. She's a senior education reporter for member station WNYC. Beth, why is Cathie Black leaving after being in the job for only three months?

BETH FERTIG: Mayor Bloomberg had appointed her to this post back in November and she came under attack immediately because she had no background at all in public education. Her entire career was in publishing. Her latest position was chair of the Hearst Magazines Group. So it seemed like a very odd choice for someone so far out of field from education.

And immediately, a lot of education groups and parents started attacking her and saying she wasn't right for the job. And then recently, her poll ratings had been very, very low. Two different polls found her at 17 percent. A lot of New Yorkers still didn't even know her.

So this is what the mayor said this morning.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: She and I met this morning and we have mutually agreed that it is in the city's best interest if she steps down as chancellor. I will say I take full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out as either of us had hoped and expected.

NORRIS: That was Mayor Bloomberg speaking. And it sounds like at least in a couple of public forums that she didn't exactly connect with her audience.

FERTIG: Yeah, and it's kind of odd for someone whose so media savvy. Once she took office in January, she made a couple of gaffes. She was at a meeting with some parents in Lower Manhattan who are worried about overcrowding in their schools, and she joked, maybe you guys should think about birth control. And that joke didn't go over very well.

She also got quite irritated at a meeting when parents and teachers and students were booing her, because this was a meeting where the city was planning to close more than 20 low-performing schools. And she just sort of got a little grouchy with them and that didn't go over very well. So it seemed like she was not really fitting in, so to speak.

NORRIS: You know, New York has experimented with people who come from outside the world of education in the past to run the city's schools. Was there something that she had done to try to make up for the fact that she didn't have that strong education background?

FERTIG: She continued to say that she was a type of person who liked to reach out, that she wanted to listen to others. And I followed her on a trip to a school just a couple of weeks ago, where she seemed to have trouble connecting with the students and really engaging with them except on the matter of are you going to college, you know, she was a real cheerleader for that.

And I asked her a few questions about, you know, you're new to this, is there anything that's frustrating to you when you go to schools? Because anyone walking into a school sees things in New York, Michele, whether it's libraries that may not be as full as you'd like them, or just the mere presence of security agents and metal detectors in some schools.

And so I asked her, is there anything that frustrates you when you go to schools?

CATHIE BLACK: No, I must admit that I have not been angry or frustrated in any school that I've been in to. And I guess I've been into, give or take, around three or four dozen, almost 40-something.

FERTIG: You haven't seen anything that's made you frustrated?

BLACK: No, sometimes I'll see a - I mean, it sounds silly. But I watch - occasionally I've seen the principal walked by some, like, crunched up piece of paper. And 99 percent of the time they lean down and pick it up. For me, it's about leadership at the top.

FERTIG: And so again and again, Cathie Black would talk about the importance of leadership where she would drop buzzwords like we need effective teachers, we need our students to be college ready but she never really came up with the specifics that people felt they needed to connect with her.

NORRIS: Mayor Bloomberg has named Dennis Walcott now to be the new chancellor. Can you tell us a little bit about him and his reception, how people are reacting upon hearing that news?

FERTIG: Dennis Walcott is a deputy mayor. He has long ties to many communities in New York. He was formerly head of the New York Urban League. He grew up in New York. He attended public schools. And he has been the deputy mayor who's been overseeing the New York City school system, so he's very well known and the mayor clearly hopes people will feel more comfortable with him.

However, he doesn't have the management experience that Mayor Bloomberg talked about when he appointed Cathie Black. And the city is facing huge budget cuts and the possibility of laying-off 4,700 teachers.

NORRIS: Thank you, Beth.

FERTIG: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's Beth Fertig. She's a senior education reporter at our member station WNYC.

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