Be Like Nutley?

While it will be nice to see Cathie Black walking out the Tweed door never to return, it's difficult to celebrate the Mayor's behind-closed-doors, non-participative, non-public, snap decision to name Dennis Walcott as her successor. Where else but in Michael Bloomberg's New York City could a mayor prove beyond doubt the emptiness of the phrase "I take full responsibility" by simultaneously repeating the very same, nonconsultative process that yielded the Cathie Black fiasco in the first place? Who else but the imperious, third-term Bloomberg could so thoroughly transform Barack Obama's "audacity of hope" into such hopeless audacity?

Yet all the discussion over Ms. Black's welcomed departure and Mr. Walcott's rapid appointment begs the crucial question: Is Dennis Walcott really the best NYC can do for a schools chancellor?

News 4 New York gently suggested as much in last night's telecast by sending a reporter to Nutley NJ, where the local school board is conducting a national search for a new schools superintendent. The unspoken implication was obvious: if Nutley can do it, why can't NYC? Perish the thought -- and that's precisely what the Daily News and the NY Times did this morning in their lead stories on Black/Walcott. The Daily News, shamelessly supportive of the mayor's every move, literally crowed in its headline: "Dennis Walcott, successor to ex-schools chancellor Cathie Black, hailed as all that she wasn't?" Hailed -- by whom? And is being "all that she wasn't" really enough?

Meanwhile, the NY Times wrote: "Dennis M. Walcott...has deep education experience. He attended the city's public schools and taught kindergarten." THIS is "deep education experience"? Has NYC really lowered its standards that much? Or does the fact that his children attended NYC public schools, as does a current grandchild, compensate for the thinness of his education credentials?

Accepting that Mr. Walcott knows something of the ins and outs of City Hall and the city's byzantine, acronym-laden, educational bureaucracy and that he commands the modern-day vocabulary of education reform, his genuine teaching and educational administration experience is disturbingly thin. No other candidate with similar credentials, brought into a superintendency search in Nutley or anywhere else, would be given serious consideration, yet Mayor Bloomberg has already made "the decision." Without consultation, without a search, without asking the public, without asking the parents of 1.1 million school children.

In the world of pre-college public education, the chancellorship of NYC public schools, the largest public school system in the United States, must certainly be seen as the premier such position in the country, the capstone of an educational administration career for the individual so chosen, the education field equivalent of being elected governor of a state or a U.S. Senator (or mayor for life in NYC) in the political world, at least. Furthermore, what NYC does in education often influences significantly what happens in many other large public school systems across the country.

For such a high-visibility, high-profile position, responsible for well the education of over a million children, is it not reasonable that every citizen of NYC, and certainly every parent of a NYC school child, has virtually the right to expect the Mayor to search aggressively for the BEST possible candidate to lead our schools? Not just settle for someone who meets the job qualification requirements and is likable and suitable, but someone who has educational vision, someone who has the best credentials, the most leadership skills, who is the most inspiring and motivational. Why is it that Mayor Bloomberg refuses to deliver to NYC what it needs and deserves: the very best possible leader for our public schools?

I would feel a whole lot better about Dennis Walcott if I thought he emerged from a genuine, broad-scale search for the best possible leadership of NYC's public schools, a search that would have sought to recruit the type of experienced, motivating, visionary candidate that our city and our children deserve as the nation's largest school system. Instead, NYC is achieving, at best, what economists refer to as "satisficing" -- settling for someone who seems satisfactory but likely well short of optimal. In that respect, I find myself only slightly less disturbed by Dennis Walcott's appointment than I was for Cathie Black's. Add to that Mr. Walcott's demonstrable lack of independence from the mayor, and the net result is deeply "unsatisficing."

In Mr. Walcott's uncontested and undebated appointment, Mayor Bloomberg is once again short-changing NYC's kids and their families, only this time perhaps slightly less so than he did previously with Cathie Black. Mr. Mayor, why can't NYC be like Nutley? For once, at least, we wouldn't mind.

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