black's basics

"Superstar manager" Black arrives with short education resume

Cathie Black published an advice book for women in business in 2007.
Cathie Black published an advice book for women in business in 2007.

The next New York City Schools Chancellor surpasses Joel Klein in at least one regard: the amount of mystery surrounding her views on education.

While Klein had graduated from the city school system and taught math to sixth-graders before being appointed chancellor, Cathleen Black’s experience appears to be limited to a less than year-long stint on a charter school advisory board.

But in appointing Black, Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have been looking for someone who will steer a calm and steady course forward, rather than someone to bring bold new ideas for education reform.

When he announced Black’s appointment this afternoon, Bloomberg trumpeted her track record of “building on successes and leading teams to even greater achievements.” And Black vowed this afternoon to build on the work that Klein has rolled out over the past eight years.

Black, 66, is a formidable figure in the publishing industry. Before going to Hearst in 1995, she had worked as the publisher of both New York Magazine and USA Today,  as well as the head of the Newspaper Association of America.

She has very little experience in public service or in public education. Her two children both attended private boarding schools, and she attended parochial school as a child on Chicago’s South Side.

A book she published in 2007, “Basic Black,” summarized the principles she followed to become a leader, from the importance of choosing battles carefully to her belief that one should “lead with affection – but don’t call it that at the office.”

At the press conference this afternoon, Black was warm but direct, speaking in short, to-the-point sentences that contrasted Klein’s more passionate, meandering style. “I have no illusions about this being an easy next three years — quite the opposite,” she said.

Black oversaw periods of both rapid growth and financial challenges during her 15-year tenure at Hearst. Last year, when Crain’s New York named her the 16th most powerful woman in New York, the magazine noted that the company’s ad sales plummeted 24 percent during the first half of 2009. But during the same year, Black oversaw the company’s most successful magazine launch in nearly a decade, of the Food Network Magazine.

Black was also known for avoiding some of the internal tumult and turnover that has plagued other top magazine publishers, said a media reporter who covered Hearst. She has kept a low public profile and has described her managerial approach as non-confrontational.

“She looks you straight in the eye, she’s tough, she’s demanding, she works very hard, she’s a motivator, she’s highly respected, she’s very articulate, she has supreme confidence about who she is and what she represents,” said Edward Lewis, the co-founder of Essence magazine and chairman of Harlem Village Academies’s board.

Black joined the Academies’ national leadership advisory board earlier this year after making several visits to the schools. Lewis introduced her to the schools’s founder, Deborah Kenny, and later Black watched a presentation Kenny gave on education at Allen & Company’s 2008 Sun Valley Conference.

“She was just immediately passionate. I mean, immediately: How can I help?” Kenny said in an interview today. “Just immediately engaged and interested and passionate about education reform.”

Bloomberg argued today that Black’s experience as a top-tier manager will prepare her for the challenges of overseeing the city’s largest agency. Still, the number of people Black supervises will skyrocket from 2,000 at Hearst to more than 135,000 teachers and agency staff.

Black will also be the first woman chancellor of the city’s schools in the history of the system.

“It’s really good to have a woman running that place,” said a DOE source. “That is a silver lining. The boy’s club will get a bit of an awakening.”

One of the most important relationships Black will have to build will be with the city teachers union. Bloomberg boasted today that United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew was the first education official Black met.

But that meeting wasn’t planned, nor did the teachers union president know he was meeting the future chancellor, Mulgrew said today. The two met as Black was leaving a meeting with the mayor and Mulgrew was arriving, Mulgrew said, and Bloomberg introduced Black as the head of Hearst Magazines, not as a future colleague.

Mulgrew said that he planned to prioritize discussing the city’s over-reliance on standardized tests and developing more early interventions for struggling schools with the new chancellor.

“When I met her, I thought she was very nice and I’m looking forward to working with her,” Mulgrew said. “When someone is new you have to be optimistic. You can’t go in with any preconceived notions and that’s the only way I am going into this.”

At the mayor’s announcement today, Black acknowledged that she has had “limited experience” working with unions and that it would take time for her to learn the ins and outs of the city’s labyrinthine public school system.

“What I ask for is your patience as I get up to speed on all of the issues facing K-12 education today,” Black said. “What I can promise is that I will listen to your concerns, your interests and your expectations. In turn, I ask the same of you.”

Because she isn’t certified as a school district leader, Black will need a waiver from State Education Commissioner David Steiner before officially taking the chancellor job. A spokesman for the state education department said today that the commissioner had not yet received the mayor’s formal request for the waiver.

It’s not clear when Black will officially begin her duties. Hearst’s Chief Executive Officer Frank Bennack, Jr., told his employees today that the company is coordinating Black’s exact departure date with the city but expected it to be before the end of the year. Bloomberg said this afternoon that Klein would likely stay on through the first of the year to ease the transition.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”