January 3, 2011 / 9:20 PM / in 7 years

Controversial chancellor takes helm of NY schools

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former publisher Cathie Black, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial choice to run the city’s schools, began her new job on Monday visiting classrooms and defending her qualifications to run the nation’s largest school system.

Praised by Bloomberg as a “superstar manager” from the private sector, Black faces a system of some 1.1 million students and nearly 1,700 schools suffering from declining performance test scores and devastating budget cuts.

“I have absolutely no qualms about taking on the job, and of course I know it’s not going to be easy,” Black said during a visit to P.S. 262, an elementary school in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“The budget cuts and everything that we are going to encounter are going to be very difficult, but the last thing we want to impact are the individual schools or the teachers,” she said.

Black pledged to support reform measures in place “with a sense of urgency,” one of which is an evaluation system using test scores to grade schools from A to F. Some say the system is too test-oriented and fails to account for factors outside school control.

Bloomberg’s decision to appoint Black as schools chancellor in November came under heavy fire because she has spent the last four decades in the newspaper and magazine business -- most recently as chairman of Hearst Magazines -- and has no professional experience in education nor in the public sector.

Due to her lack of credentials, Black required a waiver to take the job from New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner, who imposed a condition that a deputy be hired with the requisite educational background to assist her.

On Monday, Black said she was right for the job because she proved herself a “very effective manager” of complex organizations.

She visited a fourth-grade literary criticism class, and afterward the class teacher, 15-year veteran Stephanie Forcer, called the naming of Black “an out-of-the-box appointment.”

“Sometimes we have to look at things with fresh eyes,” said Forcer, who said she would have liked to ask the incoming chancellor about her plans.

Black said her first task will be examining the system’s budget, dependent in part on decisions by state legislators.

“Maybe there are things in our portfolio that just can’t ramp up enough or maybe we can’t do everything all the time, so we will focus on priorities,” she said. She also said she believed an effective teacher was more important than a small class size.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, told Reuters he met with Black and hoped their relationship would be less antagonistic than was the case with her predecessor Joel Klein, who resigned after eight years to become an executive vice president at News Corp.

“But if she wants to continue his policies then I don’t know if this will be a very productive relationship,” Mulgrew said. Klein and the union clashed over such issues as rating teachers and changing the seniority system for deciding which teachers would get laid off first.

Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton

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