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Boro leaders oppose choice of DOE head

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Queens legislators and residents criticized Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s choice to replace outgoing city Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, saying Heart Magazines Chairwoman Cathleen Black does not have the right background in education and the process of selecting a leader for the country’s largest school system was not transparent.

“Mayor Bloomberg is putting the education of millions of New York City children into the hands of someone who has no background in education,” state Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck) said. “Parents and educators need the opportunity to express their concerns about Ms. Black’s lack of relevant credentials and give Ms. Black the opportunity to publicly share her vision for NYC public schools.”

This sentiment has been echoed by lawmakers throughout the borough, the Queens Civic Congress and numerous education and parent groups, some of which have started petitions urging state Education Commissioner David Steiner not to grant Black a waiver. She needs the waiver to serve as schools chancellor because state law mandates superintendents must have a background in education. City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) came to the defense of Bloomberg Tuesday and said he wrote to Steiner, urging him to grant the waiver.

“I support mayoral control and that means the mayor chooses a chancellor he thinks has the right mix of skills for the job,” Gennaro said. “And I, too, believe Ms. Black has that all important combination of management experience, visionary leadership and old-fashioned, roll up your sleeves, can-do attitude.”

Steiner has said he will form a panel of officials from the state Department of Education and educational organizations to make a recommendation to him about Black. He did not specify how long he expects the process to take.

Klein resigned last week after eight years of leading the 1.1 million children in the city school system in a move that took Queens legislators — and apparently most of Klein’s staff — by surprise. Klein said he will join News Corp. as an executive vice president in the Office of the Chairman. He will report directly to News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch. News Corp. owns TimesLedger Newspapers.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers from the borough said there had been no process to publicly vet Black, which they agreed was unacceptable and did not bode well for her receiving a waiver from the state.

Black, whom Bloomberg called “brilliant, innovative and driven,” is the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines and the former publisher of USA Today. She sits on the advisory board for the Harlem Village Academy, a public school, but did not attend public schools herself. She sent her two children to the Kent School, a private boarding school in Connecticut that charges about $45,000 a year for tuition.

“I don’t think the mayor went through an open and transparent process,” said City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone). “The Council’s Education Committee wasn’t informed. That’s not the way to select the leader of our school system.”

State Sen.-elect Tony Avella (D-Bayside) asked Steiner to deny Black’s waiver, and David Weprin said there should be public hearings on Black before a waiver is granted. State Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) and Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) said they have serious doubts about the mayor’s selection.

“While I’m sure that Ms. Black is a very well-qualified executive in the magazine industry, the top executive in the New York City school system should be an educator,” Avella said. “I firmly believe that the chancellor should be a person who understands how to develop curriculum, who understands the value of parental involvement and who understands what principals, teachers and students go through on a daily basis.”

The Queens Civic Congress Monday night unanimously voted that Steiner should deny a waiver for Black.

“It’s questionable what she can bring to the office,” Queens Civic Congress President Patricia ´╗┐Dolan said.

Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) was more gracious in his statement on Black and said that while he “was surprised” by Bloomberg’s choice and was “concerned that she does not have a background in education, I am also encouraged that she brings a wealth of knowledge and experience from corporate America that can benefit our children.”

Other Queens legislators remained mum on Black, with Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) saying she was “neutral” on the mayor’s selection and Borough President Helen Marshall declining to reveal whether she supported the new pick.

“I told Cathie she’ll have a tough time because she has no educational experience,” Marshall said. “She has great managerial experience.”

Douglaston resident Carol Gresser, a member of the city Board of Education from 1990-98 and a current professor at St. John’s University, said she believes there is not yet enough information about Black to say whether or not she should be granted a waiver.

“It’s pretty exciting to have a woman chosen,” said Gresser, who was involved in choosing two chancellors while on the board. “It seems like she’s pretty talented, but she doesn’t know education and admits to it.”

Gresser also said there was no transparency in Bloomberg’s search.

“When I was on the board, we had a wonderful, open process and everybody felt they had input — parents, teachers, even high school students,” Gresser said. “We had a good group from which to choose.”

Bloomberg said last week he had conducted a public search for the chancellor position, but no one has come forward to say he or she was interviewed by the mayor for the position. Legislators throughout the city and state said they knew of no such search.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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