Wanted: A Chancellor Equal To The Challenge

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There is so much wrong with this nomination – there’s no way it can be right. What’s wrong?

Let’s start with the premise that New York City is the nation’s largest and most complex school system. As such, it is a golden apple. It is not asking too much on behalf of our students to have a chancellor who:

– is credentialed,
– has relevant institutional management experience and
– is demonstrably passionate about public education.

Ideally, we merit a chancellor who could also serve as a visible role model for students of color who comprise the majority of our New York City public school enrollment.

Total lack of experience and commitment is compounded by the complete absence of public process. When Mayor Bloomberg nominated Cathleen Black for the position of chancellor, there was no semblance of a public vetting. None of the touted “education experts” at Tweed appear to have been approached for their ideas on who might be a worthy successor or solicited for their response to Ms. Black as a candidate; not even the head of the Board of Regents was consulted. I was called by Deputy Mayor for Education Dennis Walcott several minutes before the press conference announcing her selection. I also received a voicemail from a blocked number; it was Ms. Black. She said was looking forward to working with me, but she did not leave me any contact information to return the call or get in touch with her.

State law gives the mayor the authority to appoint a chancellor. State law also specifies that, when the candidate for appointment does not meet the minimum criteria, the request for a waiver must come from a “board of education;” our equivalent body is the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP). The mayor is taking the position that his authority trumps that provision. I disagree: If our state legislators wanted to give the mayor that power, they would explicitly have done so. That’s why on November 16th I urged the PEP members to support a resolution by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s PEP appointee, Patrick Sullivan, seeking clarification on who is empowered to initiate a request for a waiver.

I also believe that the PEP missed an opportunity to hold a forum introducing the candidate to the public, so that we might have a glimpse of the person the Mayor has selected. What is her vision for our children? How does she foresee interacting with parents and the community? With teachers and principals? With the tens of thousands of support staff who are an integral part of any school’s team—aides, custodians and security?

Enthusiasm will not suffice in dealing with the challenges we face today and tomorrow. What will happen when stimulus money and Race to the Top funding cease? Closing a school is fundamentally different than closing a magazine. Subscribers may be placated by choosing an alternate publication but the needs of students affected by a school phase-out are not so easily met. Who advocates for our children when the role of chancellor is solely defined as a management exercise?

What abilities should a chancellor possess? Education advocates have put forth many criteria. Starting with management experience, I would emphasize the importance of facilities: construction specs and contracts and physical plant for our roughly 1,600 school sites. Beyond design considerations, the quality of construction is imperative.

The chancellor also oversees a transportation system that moves 160,000 students daily in 8,700 routes, a food service that provides millions of meals per week and involves an estimated 5,360 service contracts worth $3.7 billion.

In addition to overseeing 135,000 employees, the chancellor negotiates labor contracts with multiple unions.

All of these specific arenas need to be handled within a framework that recognizes it is the health, safety and well-being of the students that is foremost.

The chancellor should be able to interact knowledgably and comfortably with constituencies that reflect the full spectrum of our city’s rich demographics. The chancellor must recognize that the bottom line here is not exclusively measured in budget parameters but in the achievements and progress of each and every student. The chancellor must have the imagination to enrich and expand the New York State curriculum as well as meet the needs of students who are just starting to speak English or have (un)diagnosed learning challenges.

The chancellor must fully understand the value of pre-natal healthcare, early-childhood interventions, domestic violence prevention, affordable and supportive housing and many other seemingly unrelated programs that have a direct impact on student performance.

The leader of our city’s schools should be all of the above and more. I can offer you 1.1 million reasons why.

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