Cathleen Black will receive the state waiver that lets her become the next New York City schools chancellor, following a Thanksgiving deal between the city and the state, an official familiar with the deal confirmed today.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the man whose promotion allowed Cathie Black to become chancellor
PHOTO: Greenlee
Shael Polakow-Suransky, the man whose promotion allowed Cathie Black to become chancellor

The deal calls for Black to give a major promotion to Shael Polakow-Suransky, an education official who has sparred with Chancellor Joel Klein’s top deputies, even while working alongside them. Suransky, currently deputy chancellor for “performance and accountability,” will now hold two titles: senior deputy chancellor and chief academic officer.

Suransky engaged in especially vigorous debates with James Leibman, the official who created Klein’s controversial school report cards, according to department officials. He successfully lobbied to give schools the opportunity to create their own assessments rather than follow state tests.

The disagreements didn’t stop the two men from respecting each other. When Leibman left the Department of Education to return to Columbia University, Klein promoted Suransky to succeed him as head of the accountability office. An official said that Leibman promoted Suransky to the position.

Suransky is also one of a small number of top Department of Education officials who regularly refers to “instruction” as the part of education he would like to change — a trait he holds in common with Steiner and his top deputy, John King. Like King, Suransky is also a former teacher and principal. He has worked closely with state education officials on their main project, the reforms they are creating with their federal Race to the Top funding. Suransky has taken an especially prominent role in creating new assessments designed to make it harder for teachers to “teach to the test.”

State education officials had been wary to offer Black, Mayor Bloomberg’s surprise choice to succeed Klein, the necessary waiver she needs to become chancellor given that she has no background in education. Black was formerly the chairman of Hearst Magazines and had a long career in newspaper and magazine publishing.

Earlier this week, State Education Commissioner David Steiner made clear that his preference was to grant Black a waiver on the condition that Bloomberg appoint a top official with educational background to a number-two position in the Department of Education. And a panel of advisers voted not to grant the waiver, with some voting to support Steiner’s proposed compromise.

In talks that happened over Thanksgiving and continued through today, Bloomberg agreed to give that designation to Suransky.

The chancellor-plus-educator arrangement is common in other cities. But whether the two-person leadership team will allow for better management — the trait Bloomberg repeatedly cited as his reason for selecting Black — is not clear.

Today, the teachers union president, Michael Mulgrew, reacted positively to the deal. “We’ve worked well with Mr. Polakow-Suransky in the past, and we look forward to working with him and Ms. Black in the future on the critical issues the school system faces — including reducing the focus on test prep and on better academic intervention for students who are falling behind,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

Earlier this week, Harold Levy, Klein’s predecessor as chancellor, outlined the challenges of having essentially two people in charge. “Does the chancellor have authority to overrule the deputy?” Levy asked. “Does the chancellor, if she fires the deputy, have to get approval again for the new deputy? It gives the deputy extraordinary authority and leverage and I think potentially handcuffs her as a manager – precisely her strength.”

In a letter outlining the deal, Mayor Bloomberg writes that Black has vowed to keep a person in Suransky’s position “throughout her tenure.” He writes:

Ms. Black has told me that she intends to have a Senior Deputy Chancellor/Chief Academic OFficer throughout her tenure as Chancellor, because she has decided that as a management matter there should be a single Deputy, reporting directly to her as Chancellor, overseeing all pedagogic matters, including overseeing all deputy chancellors with pedagogical responsibilities

Suransky’s promotion comes as a blow to several other top Klein deputies, including Eric Nadelstern, whose title is currently “chief schools officer.” Nadelstern, a lifelong educator, was a mentor to Suransky. He created the chain of international high schools in which Suransky eventually became a principal. When Nadelstern went to work for Klein at the Department of Education, Suransky quickly followed, becoming his deputy in creating a section of schools called “empowerment” schools and, in 2009, serving as Deputy Chief Schools Officer.

Other internal candidates for the position include John White, a former teacher and Teach for America official who oversees labor relations and the city’s “innovation zone” project; Marc Sternberg, another former principal who steers the process of creating new schools and closing down poor-performing ones; Santiago Taveras, an educator and former head of the now-defunct teaching and learning department; and Laura Rodriguez, who oversees special education.

Reached for comment today, Nadelstern and White both declined to comment about the deal.

The deal was first reported by The New York Times this afternoon. Shortly after the report, the city released a letter from Mayor Bloomberg to the state announcing that he would agree to promote Suransky. Here is the letter:
Supplemental SED Letter 11-26-10