Pols cheer Black’s ouster

Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott (l.) answers questions after Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he had picked him as his new city schools chancellor. AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams
By Connor Adams Sheets

State Education Department Commissioner David Steiner announced that a state DOE screening panel was expected to meet this week to discuss whether or not to grant a waiver to allow city Schools Chancellor designee Dennis Walcott to be appointed to that post.

The meeting was scheduled to take place a day after Walcott, deputy mayor for education and community development, met with state lawmakers for the first time since being named to the position that Chancellor Cathie Black left after three months on the job.

During the meeting with the education committees of the state Assembly and state Senate in Albany, he proposed an amendment to the state DOT’s five-year capital plan that would restore 11,979 school seats for construction statewide and $1.75 billion in state funding under the plan.

The amendment would bring the total number of new city school seats funded under the five-year state plan to 26,866, and the total amount of state funding for the city under the state plan to $11.1 billion over five years.

Although Queens officials welcomed Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to replace Black with Walcott of Cambria Heights, they do not believe his appointment will have much of an impact on city education policy.

Borough politicians said Walcott’s background in education — he is a Francis Lewis HS alumnus, former head of the city Board of Education and one-time kindergarten teacher — will give him a better handle on the serious issues facing the city’s public schools than Black, who never worked in education before her appointment as chancellor. Despite that wealth of experience, they did not have high hopes for a sea change at the Department of Education.

City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) said he supports the appointment of Walcott, who has yet to be approved as the new chancellor. But he emphasized that he did not expect Walcott to halt the planned closings of three Queens schools — Jamaica and Beach Channel high schools and IS 231 in Springfield Gardens and the pending vote later this month on whether to close PS 30 in Jamaica — or make other major changes.

“Cathie Black decided this wasn’t the right fit for her, and that’s not a surprise,” Comrie said after Bloomberg’s announcement. “Dennis has been involved with the Department of Education for many years and knows all the aspects of it …. I don’t think it will affect their philosophy that immediately. The Department of Education is still going to do their process of closures. He has supported those procedures so far and I don’t see him as chancellor changing it.”

Bloomberg said last Thursday at a press conference introducing Walcott in his new role that he had full confidence in his new chancellor.

“There’s no one that understands New York City public schools and the challenges they face together better than Dennis Walcott,” Bloomberg said. “Cathie and I had a conversation this morning. We both agreed the story had become her, and it should be about the students.”

Black, who worked for years in the magazine publishing industry, replaced former Chancellor Joel Klein in November. During her short tenure she endured fierce criticism from teachers, parents and officials who said she was not knowledgeable enough about education issues.

Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) is a vocal opponent of the use of test scores to evaluate schools and teachers. He said he has little hope for change under Walcott.

“I can’t expect there’ll be much of a policy change with a new chancellor,” Weprin said. “However, I am a big admirer of Dennis Walcott and expect [him to be] someone who knows New York City public schools.”

A lifetime southeast Queens resident, Walcott also was an adjunct professor at York College in Jamaica. His grandson marks the fourth generation of his family to attend city schools.

Walcott, the first in his family to graduate from college, said during his introductory speech that he backed the administration’s controversial reliance on testing in public schools.

“I’m a believer in what we do. I’m a believer in reform. I’m a believer in this mayor, but more importantly I’m a believer in our 1.1 million students,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure our students are college-ready when they graduate.”

City Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) applauded Bloomberg’s choice of Walcott to replace Black, but said he must be responsive to the public he serves.

“Walcott is better equipped to lead the mammoth DOE than what the administration so arrogantly pushed on to parents and community stakeholders with respect to Ms. Black,” he said in a statement. “I urge Mr. Walcott to listen to the parents, principals, teachers and the many spokes on the wheel of successful education for the 1.1 million New York City public school children.”

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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