Cathie Black Waiting for Approval From an Office That Has Said ‘No’ Before


Richard Mills, the same state education commissioner who gave Joel Klein a waiver to become chancellor in 2002, denied another waiver application in 2003.

The reasons cited in that 9-page denial letter will no doubt impact the decision now facing Mills’ successor, David Steiner, who will soon decide whether Hearst heavyweight Cathie Black has the qualifications to lead the city school system.

Mills rejected Ernest Hart as Yonkers school superintendent after an advisory panel he appointed found him unqualified by a five to four vote. Steiner has appointed a similar group, consisting mostly of professional educators.

Currently the chair of the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, Hart has, ironically, held a number of top posts in the Bloomberg administration. Indeed, as the chief of staff to Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott at the time he was selected by the Yonkers Board of Education, Hart had, as the Mills decision acknowledged, “worked on the development of education policy for NYC schools.”

The commissioner ruled that Hart’s year of transformative education policy assistance to Walcott, combined with his prior service as Yonkers Human Resources Commissioner and NYC’s deputy personnel director, was still insufficient to qualify him to head Yonkers’ 27,000-student system. Hart had also served as counsel to the Public Employee Relations Board, which routinely deals with labor issues like those that consume city school administration.

“There is no evidence, however” Mills concluded, after listing the high points of Hart’s resume, “of any in-depth knowledge or understanding of the educational challenges facing Yonkers students.”

Mills said that “the law does not permit me to simply dispense with the preparation and experiential requirements outlined in the Commissioner’s regulations,” and that “taken as a whole,” Hart’s “education, training, background and experience are not substantially equivalent to the certification requirements set forth in law.”

Some of the specifics cited in the nine-page letter raise red flags for Black. “Hart has no direct experience supervising teachers, assessing teacher quality or supporting teachers,” Mills wrote. “Nor does he have a strong background in teaching strategies. His qualifications do not reflect a deep understanding of curriculum, instruction and assessment, or how children learn. Although he has some teaching and student mentoring experience as an adjunct professor at New York Law School, he has no apparent experience at the elementary or secondary level.” Of course, even that limited teaching experience, together with Hart’s acknowledged role with a Public Safety Cadet program in Yonkers that encouraged public school students to participate in police and fire science courses, was far more than Black’s zero school bio.

Though Hart had managed large bureaucracies and, as Mills put it, “understands budgeting,” the state commissioner nonetheless concluded that he “does not have direct experience with a school budget.” Furthermore, said Mills, “there is no evidence he has ever managed a budget as large as the Yonkers City School District.” Both, of course, are true of Black as well.

The silver lining for Black in the Hart decision, however, is that Mills did cite his earlier opinion on Klein, distinguishing the Yonkers situation from the New York City system. “I found it significant” in the Klein case, Mills wrote, “that the statutorily mandated structure of the NYC school system provides the Chancellor with a support team of experienced superintendents reporting to him to help create and implement policy. No such statutory structure exists in Yonkers.” If Steiner adapts this argument to the Black waiver application, he may essentially rule that the city system is so top heavy with educators and experienced deputies that its professional infrastructure can compensate for virtually any deficiencies at the chancellor level. By this logic, Hart could have run the city system, just not Yonkers, because as Mills put it, “he would serve as the only superintendent in this large and complex district.”

“Given the defined responsibilities of the position and the serious challenges facing the Yonkers school system,” ruled Mills, “I find Mr. Hart’s inexperience with curriculum, instruction and assessment to be problematic.” Steiner and Steiner’s panel may find Black’s just as problematic.

Beyond Klein’s connections as a teacher and a student to public education, there is another reason his selection made better sense than Black’s does now. Bloomberg had just been elected, a new mayoral control system has just passed the legislature, and Klein could look forward, at the age of 55, to a potential eight years of mastering and managing the system. Black, at 66, is making a wholesale career change with only three Bloomberg years to find her footing and leave a mark. It may not be possible for Steiner’s panel to consider this very real difference in their statutory deliberations, but Mike Bloomberg should have.

Research Credit: Lily Altavena, Samantha Cook, Ryan Gellis, Puneet Parhar