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.