The public wants to know.
By JAVIER C. HERNANDEZ, NY TIMES, Dec. 9, 2010
In defending his selection for schools chancellor, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has called Cathleen P. Black, a publishing executive with no education experience, “exactly the right person for the job” and suggested that her skills as a manager were unrivaled.
Ms. Black, however, was not the first person the mayor asked to take the position. Mr. Bloomberg tried to persuade Geoffrey Canada, the prominent Harlem education leader and a friend of the mayor, to be chancellor, but Mr. Canada turned it down, according to two people with direct knowledge of the discussions.
The two people did not want to be identified because Mr. Bloomberg has sought to keep the process private.
Mr. Bloomberg has repeatedly declined to offer details about whom he consulted during the search process, or how he ultimately settled on Ms. Black, the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines.
But the revelation suggests that Mr. Bloomberg conducted a wider search than previously thought, and that he may have been seeking a more traditional candidate in hopes of avoiding the withering criticism that has accompanied Ms. Black’s appointment.
Ms. Black’s opponents have seized on her lack of familiarity with the public education system and the fact that during a 40-year career, she has rarely gone outside the publishing world. She attended parochial schools, sent her own children to private boarding school and holds no graduate degrees.
Mr. Canada, by contrast, has gained international notice as the leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a network of charter schools renowned for its cradle-to-college approach. He grew up in the South Bronx and holds a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
And although Mr. Bloomberg was criticized for not picking a member of a racial or ethnic minority to lead a school system that is made up overwhelmingly of minority children, Mr. Canada is black.
Still, while Mr. Canada, 58, may have been more palatable to some critics, his passionate defense of charter schools and his habit of firing teachers who fail to improve test scores would most likely be anathema to union leaders and many parents active in the schools.
For Mr. Canada, becoming chancellor would have meant leaving behind the empire he had built in Harlem, which is depicted as helping children succeed against steep odds in a popular documentary, “Waiting for Superman.”
In a brief interview, Mr. Canada did not dispute the suggestion that he had been offered the job but declined to comment on it. He said Mr. Bloomberg had solicited his advice about a month before the mayor announced the selection of Ms. Black in early November.
“It was just a very frank and open conversation,” Mr. Canada said. “He was really seeking my opinions on what I thought would be the characteristics of a good chancellor.”
A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg declined on Thursday to comment.
The two men deeply admire each other and have spoken often about how to promote charter schools in the city.
Mr. Bloomberg gave Mr. Canada’s name when he was asked recently by New York magazine to identify the most important living person in the city. When the mayor was running for re-election in 2009, he said Mr. Canada was the person he most admired.
“He grew up poor and wasn’t handed a path to prominence and success,” Mr. Bloomberg wrote in a candidate survey. “He is an entrepreneur, an innovator and an inspiration.”
Through the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a foundation that donates the mayor’s money, Mr. Bloomberg, according to financial records, has given at least $675,000 to the Harlem Children’s Zone, which covers a 97-block area and some 10,000 children.
Mr. Canada is also a close political ally of Mr. Bloomberg. He helped lead the successful effort to renew the mayor’s control of city schools in 2009.
Since Mr. Bloomberg announced his selection of Ms. Black, her candidacy has come under attack, and he has faced criticism for conducting a highly secretive search process.
In response, the mayor has emphasized Ms. Black’s time as a leader of a large corporation, saying the school system needed a nimble cost-cutter. Mr. Canada, by contrast, has spent much of his life working at the helm of community organizations.
It is unclear how many people Mr. Bloomberg consulted about the chancellorship, or whether he offered the job to anyone else. His aides have said that he spoke with many people about the position.
One of those individuals was another prominent education leader: Michelle A. Rhee, the tough-talking former chief of the Washington school system. In an interview, Ms. Rhee declined to elaborate on her conversations with the mayor, and she refused to say whether she had been offered the job.
Mr. Bloomberg’s choice of Mr. Canada suggests he was looking, at least initially, for a tough-minded reformer who could claim success in the education arena. While Mr. Canada’s program is considered a national model, some say the results should be more pronounced, given that he vastly outspends traditional public schools.
Eli Broad, the billionaire financier of education reform efforts, said he had confidence that Ms. Black was the right person for the job. But he acknowledged that Mr. Canada “might have been an easier sell.”
“He is really part of the fabric to change American public education in many ways,” Mr. Broad said.