Black Out, Walcott In: Deputy Mayor Is Named New Education Chancellor

Sarah Laskow | April 7th, 2011

Dennis Walcott

After Mayor Bloomberg introduced Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott as the city’s new education chancellor this morning, Walcott announced one of his short-term goals in his new job: making waffles with a bunch of sweet-voiced school kids.

Walcott follows Cathie Black as chancellor, and the image he presented at this morning’s press conference stood in contrast to the corporate superpower of Black, who resigned just months after she had joined the Bloomberg administration. It’s hard to imagine Black pouring batter into a hot, buttery waffle iron. She always seemed more comfortable with spreadsheets and conference tables than children.

And that was the root of her problem. Mayor Bloomberg brought her in at the end of 2010 in order to, he said, to help lead the school system through its thorny financial problems. Those problems haven’t disappeared. The budget that came out of Albany last week cut millions of dollars of school aid to New York City, and both teacher lay-offs and program cut-backs are looming. Perhaps Black’s financial acumen could have made those cuts less painful than they might be. Perhaps she could have pushed the school system’s operations into a more fiscally responsible mode. But she was never able to show that she would do that work with real empathy to parents or real concern about their kids.

Mayor Bloomberg said that he and Black had “mutually agreed” on her resignation. “[Black] has worked tirelessly to learn all the ins and outs of the system,” the mayor said. “She loves New York and wants to do what’s right for the families and students that she serves.”

“I take full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out as either of us had expected,” he said.

Last week, an NY1-Marist poll put Black’s approval rate at a dismal 17%, and her unpopularity was starting to infect opinions about Mayor Bloomberg’s entire education push. In 2009, the poll reported, 53% of New Yorkers approved of Mayor Bloomberg’s work on public schools. In 2011, just 27% felt the same way.

While Black came from Mayor Bloomberg’s social circle, a cadre of elite New Yorkers, Walcott comes from New York’s political world. Before joining the Bloomberg administration in 2002, at its very beginning, Walcott headed the New York Urban League and served on the Board of Education from 1993-1994. His career has focused on social services and New York communities, and in 2001, The New York Times pointed to his “talent for staying calm” and noted “his equanimity has hastened his ascent in a city of short tempers.”

File this latest promotion under that rubric. After Black’s confirmation, her retort to a heckling parent at a community meeting grew into one of the biggest stories about her tenure. She and Bloomberg exemplify the prickly sort of striver who accomplish their goals despite others might think about them because they believe they’re right. But when it comes to education, New Yorkers might turn out to prefer a chancellor who’s a little sweeter, who they can imagine feeding waffles to their kids.