Cathie Black, the high-profile magazine executive hand-picked by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to run the nation's largest school system, resigned Thursday after three tumultuous months on the job.
The departure — Bloomberg said it was by mutual agreement — marked one of the more embarrassing episodes of the billionaire's three terms in office. Bloomberg, heralded by himself and others as a manager's manager who had brought business discipline to government, installed Black with virtually no consultation or any sense of political support.
The result was a Page One mess.
"We both agreed the story had really become about her and away from the kids, and that's not good," Bloomberg told reporters at a morning news conference. "We've got to focus on what's good for the kids."
On several occasions Black, 66, had offended parents and educators with quips better suited for a corporate retreat than public meetings about sensitive subjects such as school closings and budget cuts. At one point she suggested to parents concerned about overcrowding in schools that birth control might be an answer. At her next public meeting she was booed by parents waving condoms.
A poll released this week by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion showed Black's approval rating had fallen to a stunning 17%, a blow to a mayor who had made education the priority of his third term and whose own approval rating has been slipping in recent months.
Bloomberg said Thursday he intended to replace Black with Dennis Walcott, a onetime kindergarten teacher who holds a graduate degree in education and has been advising the mayor on education issues since Bloomberg took office nine years ago. Bloomberg introduced Walcott, who spoke briefly; the former Hearst Magazines chairwoman was not there.
An interim chancellor was appointed to run the system while Walcott awaits special approval by the state education commissioner.
Leonie Haimson, a longtime advocate for smaller class sizes in public schools, said that as unqualified as Black was for the job, she was also put in a difficult position of running a school system with daunting problems left by her predecessor, former federal prosecutor Joel Klein, who announced his resignation in November.
"Black was inheriting a huge mess," Haimson said. "I don't think she had any idea what she was stepping into. … For many years Klein coasted on increased budgets and inflated test scores. He got out just in time."
Haimson noted that a fourth of the city's elementary schools had waiting lists for kindergarten for next fall.
"She was facing a system that has had overdevelopment with a lack of real planning," Haimson said. "I don't think the mayor and Walcott can convince New Yorkers that they're really doing a good job unless they start listening to parents and educators and make some real reversals of policy."
Others said this was not so much an indictment of Bloomberg's specific vision for educating the city's 1.1 million public school children as of his leadership approach.
"This is Mike Bloomberg who thinks he's the philosopher king determining the public good from on high with arrogance, hubris and a belief system based on 'I'm right, you're wrong,' " said Baruch College political analyst Doug Muzzio. "Well, Humpty Dumpty just fell off the wall, and I'm not sure he can put it back together again."