By ANDREA PEYSER, NY POST, February 17, 2011
In the annals of Really Bad Ideas, a few stand out as stupendously dumb.
Bike-lane proliferation. Sen. Al Franken. Charlie Sheen's in-mansion rehab.
The installation of Cathie Black to the post of city schools chancellor has devolved over seven weeks into a brand-new category of managerial screw-up. Mayor Bloomberg has to know he made a mistake.
Well, mismatching a shirt and tie qualifies as a boo-boo. Hiring Black to run a school system of 1.1 million kids, the nation's largest -- a job for which she is not temperamentally suited, intellectually qualified or, from the look on her scowling face, interested in performing -- is akin, in terms of political trauma, to hiring a BP executive to explain an oil spill.
But rather than let Black, 66 -- a gifted magazine executive before Bloomberg found her at a dinner party -- get her life back, the mayor has dug in his heels. Even as he undermines her.
Black's selection couldn't come at a worse time. The administration is trying to win parents' hearts and minds as it closes dozens of rotten schools and battles the teachers union on "last-in, first out" layoff policies.
Against this backdrop, Black's ascendance was the most closely guarded urban mystery since the opening date of "Spider-Man." Two sources told me that Bloomberg's close aide, Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, whom Bloomberg snatched from political consulting (he did Hillary Rodham Clinton's US Senate campaign), learned of Black's hiring "half an hour before it happened."
"I don't understand what his thinking is. I've been so disappointed by this," said a government insider. Wolfson said only, "She's going to do a dynamite job." Black wouldn't comment.
January ranks as Black's mensis horribilis. But even before her public meltdowns, Bloomberg, who'd insisted for weeks that Black was "exactly the right person for the job," let it drop that she wasn't his first choice. He wanted Harlem educator Geoffrey Canada, who said, "No thanks."
Bloomberg "did that to make it sound like there was a decision-making process of sorts," said the insider. By revealing he preferred the more qualified Canada, "he threw her under a bus."
In short succession, Black uttered two bloopers that reverberated through city ears like nails on a blackboard. On Jan. 13, a parent asked Black about overcrowding. She joked, "Could we just have some birth control for a while? It could really help us all out a lot."
Furious parents took away two things: Black, a wealthy, white lady who sent her kids to private boarding school, referred to birth rates in minority communities. Also, the parent had asked about how schools would accommodate babies who were already born.
Which may explain Black's next quip. She said budget cuts have forced her into "many Sophie's choices," a tasteless reference to the book and movie about a mother in Auschwitz forced to choose which of her children has to die. She apologized.
Then Black hit bottom. On Feb. 1, faced by howling parents carrying condoms, she presided over a hearing to close failing schools. Weary from the seven-hour harangue, she complained that the audience was not allowing her to speak. The crowd said, "Awwwww."
Black mocked them back. "Ohhhh," she said, disgust coloring her face.
Upper West Side parent Noah Gotbaum just wanted Black's opinion on school closings. "You know what we got? Nine words! Black told us, 'These are very difficult decisions to make,' " said Gotbaum, a plaintiff in the lawsuit to cancel the state waiver that made Black chancellor.
Truth is, Black's predecessor, Joel Klein, wasn't popular in many communities. But Klein, who once taught sixth grade, commanded a level of respect that Black -- who received a 21 percent favorability rating in a recent poll to Klein's 46 -- will never get.
"The mayor hires those he enjoys as dinner guests, like Bicycle Lady Janette Sadik-Khan," said Manhattan mom Leslie Gold. "He doesn't think we are smart enough to know the right answer. Black was a 'Devil Wears Prada' sort in her corporate life, and isn't used to having an internal dialogue or defending her image."
Some mistakes are too big to admit.