Saturday, January 01, 2011

Lawyers for Three Groups Fighting Black Nomination Get Hearing in Albany

Published in The Wave, Dec. 31, 2010

by Lisa Donlan and Norm Scott

With designated NYC schools chancellor Cathie Black due to take office on Jan. 3, a hearing was held on December 23 in Albany over three lawsuits opposing the nomination with State Supreme Court justice Gerald Connolly presiding.

Attorney and Brooklyn parent of two children Eric Snyder made the first argument followed by Roger Wareham representing two parents and famed civil rights attorney Norman Siegel representing one teacher and 13 parents, including Brooklyn State Assemblyman Hakim Jeffries.

Snyder claimed that all routes to qualifications for Chancellor outlined in the law require a graduate degree. The legal question seemed to hinge on the fact that while State Ed Commissioner regulations relating to how the education law is to be applied explicitly require a graduate degree, the education law itself (revised in 2007) does not explicitly do so. Snyder argued that the statute refers to the regulations and the regulations are explicit in NOT allowing the waiving of the higher degree requirement. The legal problem seems to be to puzzle out the intentions of the law: is a Master’s degree required by law or not?

Waivers for past chancellors, all of them lawyers but not meeting the qualifications for the Chancellorship (Joel Klein and Harold Levy among others) were granted because a JD degree is considered equivalent to a Masters. Black only holds a BA. The judge pointed out that he was “cognizant” of the disconnect between the statute and the regulations. Snyder claimed that State Education Commissioner Steiner’s decision in granting the waiver relied on the regulations and not the statute.

Norman Siegel claimed that even in granting the waiver, Commissioner Steiner pointed out that Black lacks skills in many critical areas: educational standards, curriculum, accountability and the use of performance data, preparation of great teachers and turning around low performing schools, only granting the waiver on the condition that a deputy with these skills be appointed. Chief Accountability Officer Shael Polokow-Suransky was subsequently given the position but Mayor Bloomberg affirmed that Black would be totally in charge.

Siegel said that the statute makes no provision for a chancellor to rely on a staff for these qualifications with the law specifically referring to how “the candidate” (and never a plural or team or staff supported candidate) shall meet the requirements laid out in the law for the position of Chancellor (termed by Roger Wareham as a "shadow" Chancellor as second in command to palliate the lack of training, credentials and experience of the candidate). "Thus one can make an irrefutable inference as to the intentions of the legislature on this matter."

Wareham reviewed Black's lack of qualifications, interest, knowledge or involvement of any kind in public education and said the over 1 million children would be done irreparable harm with the appointment of a Chancellor who was not even qualified to teach, let alone supervise teachers who all must hold a Masters. "If this nomination goes through I can foresee the day when even a Bachelors degree is waived," said Warenham.

"Black has exceptional experience in dealing with large organizations, collaborating, leading, engaging diverse stakeholders, building relationships and managing facilities and money," said Assistant Attorney General Kelly Munkwitz, who represented Steiner and NY State, claiming that what Black didn't get in the classroom was covered in her career as a magazine and newspaper publisher.

This led to some discussion over the nature of substantial experience, private vs. public sector, the experience that would inform decisions making, the role a second in command with qualifications could play, and the fact that surely an educator with substantial management experience could have been found. Wareham pointed out that indeed context does mater when it comes to qualifications for decision making in public education, citing several coaches/sports teams managers who by the same logic would be as qualified to run our public school system as Black by these standards.
"This is about the individual best suited to run a school system that's the size of a fairly large city," said Assistant Corporation Counsel Chlarens Orsland who represented Bloomberg. None of the lawyers pointed out that with a $23 billion budget, 1700 schools and 135,000 employees, managing the NYC school system is far out of the range of Black's managerial experience in organizations with no more than 2000 employees and budgets not even one tenth the NYC schools budget. "What does she know about facilities management," asked one observer in the gallery?

The respondents made mention of the unique nature of NYC school district, which the law mentions in several places may require unique requirements for NYC as an argument for the Black waiver even though this section of the law does not make this exception explicit. Had the Legislature wanted NYC to have different requirements for the NYC chancellor the law would state so claimed the lawyers challenging Black.

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