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Queens officials reassess Black

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Queens legislators softened their opinion of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s choice for city schools chancellor before reports surfaced that state Education Commissioner David Steiner said late Tuesday he would reject Cathie Black’s nomination unless an educator was enlisted to help her run the nation’s largest school system.

State law mandates Black must receive a waiver from Steiner in order to become chancellor because she has no background in education, and Steiner, in a significant blow to Bloomberg, said he would only grant it to her if the mayor also appointed an educator to work by her side, The New York Times reported. Steiner’s statement came after six of the eight panelists the commissioner put together to advise him on Black voted against the exemption Tuesday.

While some borough legislators had said they supported Black, citing her experience in management as the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, before Steiner’s announcement, others said she should not be allowed to manage the 1.1 million schoolchildren in New York City because she had no educational experience.

“I support Mayor Bloomberg and his selection of Cathie Black as the new chancellor of New York City schools,” said state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans), who had taken a less definitive stance on Black last week. “While I am 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 will benefit the Department of Education, which is a multibillion-dollar agency.”

Bloomberg announced two weeks ago that he picked Black to replace current Chancellor Joel Klein. Klein resigned two weeks ago after eight years with the Bloomberg administration and said he will join News Corp. as an executive vice president reporting directly to News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch. New Corp. owns TimesLedger Newspapers.

“As reported, I originally signed my name onto a City Council resolution calling on state Education Commissioner David Steiner to deny Cathie Black the waiver she needs to become chancellor of our city’s schools,” Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) said. “I have since asked that my name be removed from that resolution. I realized this was a rush to judgement.”

Halloran said he wants the Council to “give Ms. Black a chance.”

Borough and city lawmakers have criticized the process by which the mayor selected Black and said the public was not included in the search.

“I want to assure you that I have formed no opinion on Cathleen Black, your choice for schools chancellor,” state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone), chairwoman of the state Senate Education Committee, wrote in a letter to Bloomberg. “I do not know anything about her. I do not know where she stands on the issues. I do not know her education credentials, her beliefs. I want to be fair-minded and make my decisions based on facts, but I have few facts about Ms. Black.”

State Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) and members of the Assembly’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian legislative caucus sent a letter to Bloomberg criticizing his search process.

“This appointment was made by Mayor Bloomberg absent a public search or consultation with any members of the [caucus], even though it is our children who make up a majority of the students in the New York City public school system,” the letter stated.

Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) sent out an e-mail survey to nearly 3,000 residents of his district and asked if they thought Black should receive the waiver. Among the 387 people who responded, 84 percent said no.

Borough President Helen Marshall has said she believes Black will have a hard time as chancellor, but did not say a waiver should not be granted. Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) has said he supports Black, and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) said she is “neutral” on Black.

State Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck) said he believes a public meeting needs to be held for city parents and educators before Steiner makes a final decision. The Queens Civic Congress voted last week that Black should not be granted a waiver.

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

Updated 6:30 pm, October 10, 2011
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