Tone Deaf Mayor Turns Cathie Black Appointment into a Public Relations Train Wreck

If the recent uproar over Cathleen Black's appointment as NYC Schools Chancellor has shown anything, it has been the growing tone deafness of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The man who once ran roughshod over the city's term limits laws and then quite literally had to buy his way into a third term subsequently promised not to fall into the historical trap of third term ineffectuality. Yet he is now wearing out his welcome at an accelerating pace, doubling down on bad decisions and lashing out at everyone who disagrees with him. Well known for lacking the common touch, the Mayor has never seemed more distant from everyday New Yorkers and more tin-eared in his behavior.

The Mayor’s most recent spate of tone deafness began with his behind-closed-doors decision to appoint an unqualified magazine publishing executive to replace outgoing schools chancellor Joel Klein. Ms. Black was personally light years removed in almost every possible way to the lives of most public school parents: never attending a public school, sending her children to boarding school, never demonstrating the slightest interest in the issues surrounding public education during her professional career, owning houses on Park Avenue, rural-gentry Connecticut, and Southampton, sitting on a charter school board (whose meetings she had never yet attended) chaired by Rupert Murdoch, socializing with Oprah, having baby showers hosted by Marilyn Quayle, birthday parties in Tuscany, and so forth.

Even Ms. Black’s experience as a business executive felt tainted, far, far away from a real bricks and mortar, unionized, multi-site, multi-layered operation. And then there were those magazines: Cosmopolitan? O Magazine? Seventeen? Redbook? Town & Country? THIS was going to be the leader of our children’s schools? Still, all of these shortcomings might have easily been overlooked had Ms. Black offered the least educational or even just public sector experience. Her main qualification thus ended up looking like it was being a cocktail circuit friend of the Mayor’s.

The Mayor reacted almost immediately to the initial blowback on his choice by foolishly claiming he had conducted a public search and that Cathie Black was the best choice. Of course, no alternate candidates could be found, and even the normally stuffy NY Times did a tongue-in-cheek, online search (here and here) for anyone who would say they had been interviewed for the position. Incredibly, the only person who claimed to have been consulted about the new chancellor was Geoffrey Canada, the publicity-seeking-missile whose charter school advocacy is, for many New Yorkers, at the heart of their distaste for what they see as the Mayor’s destructive education policies. Mr. Canada’s input was hardly a soothing consolation, and he was quickly disappeared from the scene. Still, the Mayor’s people were fast losing control of the public conversation even as the Mayor was making demonstrably false assertions about “the process. “

Ms. Black herself only amplified the sense that the entire selection process was a cavalier handout from the Mayor to a social acquaintance. She refused to speak publicly or be interviewed, and then reversed herself for a single interview with the lighter-than-air Cindy Adams (simultaneously reinforcing a growing host of unseemly interconnections among Rupert Murdoch, Joel Klein, Ms. Black, and the Mayor). With Ms. Adams, Ms. Black positively gushed over how she had accepted the position after an hour’s breakfast chat with the Mayor and how her stomach had done flip-flops over the idea. Like Sarah Palin, Ms. Black suggested that she never blinked, never considered her lack of qualifications, never thought that the lack of public process would be the least bit objectionable. The story line looked more and more like “Mr. Tone Deaf Chooses Ms. Tone Deaf for Schools Chancellor.”

By now, the Mayor was well down the road to an absolute public relations train wreck. Within days after foisting an unqualified candidate on the parents of 1.1 million school children, he was publicly scolding the citizens of NYC for their opposition, asserting that they simply did not understand the true nature of the Schools Chancellor's job. His staff and PR machine fell in line, lashing out at the UFT and "the opponents of mayoral control" who, by inference, would attack anything the mayor did with schools and anyone he chose to lead the schools. Never in any of these verbal volleys and rationalizations were children mentioned by the "children first" mayor.

As public opinion gelled against Ms. Black, the Mayor’s PR machine went into high gear. They trotted out whatever supporters for Ms. Black they could muster: Gloria Steinem, Rudy Giuliani, Oprah, Ed Koch, Ms. Black’s husband’s employer (IIE), the presidents of her and/or her husband’s alma maters, and David Dinkins, among others. Perhaps the intent was to influence or pressure Commissioner Steiner, but the voices of this group of Cathie Black supporters were irrelevant to the citizenry. The Mayor could not muster a single supporter whose voice actually mattered to regular people when it came to their children’s education.

Ever one not to look for a second foot to stick in his mouth, the Mayor spoke out again, comparing Joel Klein to a pitcher who had just gone seven (very rocky) innings and Ms. Black to a “closer”, a la the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera. So education for the mayor was now just a ball game of limited duration, and what he expected from Ms. Black was to close out that game. In baseball, that means shut down the opposition, don’t let any new threats develop, keep things where they are. Just hold the line and finish what Joel has started. Nice analogy, just brimming with optimism and hope for a brighter tomorrow.

When the time came to petition the NYS Education Commission David Steiner for a waiver of the legally required educational qualifications, Mayor Bloomberg was beginning to realize that the unwashed masses were getting a bit too up at arms. The Mayor’s response was a classic doubling down on tone deafness: shutting down all public discussion via the Panel for Education Policy. The public be damned; he and he alone would submit the waiver, not the PEP, even though NYS law clearly states that waiver requests are to be submitted through the local board of education.

The Mayor was not going to permit any public forum that might allow some of the parents of those 1.1 million parents to have any voice in who would be leading their children’s schools. The Mayor lashed out once again, arguing that mayoral control means that he makes the decision, not realizing that his very imperiousness was a stick-in-the-open-wound reminder of how he had poured his own millions into the last election to prevent those same citizens from holding him accountable.

All of this was mere anticlimax to an absolute orgy of tone deafness on November 23, however. On that day, Commissioner Steiner convened an advisory panel that effectively rejected the Mayor’s waiver petition for Ms. Black by a vote of 6 – 2 (here and here). Bloomberg, ever the sorest of losers, completely ignored the voices of City Councilpersons, state legislators, and many thousands of unhappy citizens who signed petitions against the waiver. Instead, he lashed out like a child with hurt feelings, saying that the state law requiring waivers to be granted for under-qualified school superintendents should be abolished. Bloomberg of course failed to recognize the irony in his reaction, that the very law he wished to abolish was put in place to prevent behavior exactly like he had demonstrated in the previous two weeks.

Also on November 23, the Daily News reported that Ms. Black’s college transcript had been publicly released, but with the grades blacked out (no pun intended). Her grades in such courses as Introduction to the Sacred Script, Dogma of God and Creation, Theology of the Sacraments, and Liturgical Singing are apparently not in the public interest, yet public schools are publicly graded and the Mayor can hardly wait to release a similar form of grades on individual teachers. The DOE’s response as to why the grades were not being released as well was a Peewee Hermanesque “because we said so.”

Still on that selfsame day, Rupert Murdoch announced News Corps' acquisition of Wireless Generation, "a national leader in the new wave of education reform" as the NY Times put it. That news seems only mildly interesting until one notes that Wireless Generation is one of the DOE's (and Joel Klein's) leading partners in School of One, a technology-based, student-paced learning system that Klein himself has been actively promoting for the past two years and has reportedly been pilot testing in several NYC schools this year. Wireless Generation has also been one of the major recipients of negotiated (not competitively bid) contracts from Chancellor Klein for the hugely expensive ARIS system, a database that Bloomberg and Klein point to as one of their top educational achievements but which is routinely bashed by teachers as useless.

Since Joel Klein would be leaving the DOE to become a senior “education market” strategy executive for Mr. Murdoch, the revolving door sleaze was palpable enough as it was. Announcing the deal on the same day as the waiver rejection, and while Mr. Klein remained in his current Chancellor’s position, came across as Rupert and Joel blatantly thumbing their noses even further at the public.

The late-breaking Quinnipiac College poll, released the evening before Commissioner Steiner’s waiver panel met, reported the public’s strong dislike for Ms. Black as Schools Chancellor. It also showed the Mayor’s favorability ratings plummeting as his tone deafness continued to worsen.

No doubt his private response was that opinion polls should be abolished as well. Why stop the train wreck now?

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