The new chancellor brings a practical value when it comes to this group. “Cathie attended the Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley every year as a Coca-Cola board member,” a corporate executive says. “In that room is several trillion dollars in net worth. If you look at who has funded these charter schools, it’s these same guys. One of her roles is to keep that going.” When Black talks about exploiting her ties to the business community, she sounds like a full-time, more energetic version of Caroline Kennedy, Bloomberg’s first emissary to the big-money donors. “I haven’t run across anybody that I know in the business world in the past five or six weeks who doesn’t say, ‘Just tell me what you want me to do,’ in this totally open way,” she says. “They want New York City schools to succeed. I saw a whole bunch of people the other night—‘Just call me! Anytime you want, just call me!’ Stan Shuman at Allen & Co., Terry Lundgren at Macy’s.” In the current climate, with public budgets being slashed, that pipeline matters more than ever to sustaining the growth of the charter business.
All of which, however, is secondary to why the mayor really hired Black as the new chancellor. Klein, for better or worse, was New York’s school-reform visionary. Bloomberg may say the system now needs a great manager, and he believes Black will turn out to be one. But what he doesn’t want, this time around, is big ideas. The mayor wants someone to sell his ideas.
The line that got her in trouble came in mid-January. Meeting with a group of Tribeca parents upset about school overcrowding, Black quipped, “Could we just have some birth control for a while? It could help us all out a lot.” She’d been apologizing ever since. Six nights later, Black attended her first public meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy, a monthly ritual that is supposed to give the appearance of community input into the school system but instead functions as a forum for desperate parents to vent their anger and beg for help. Black sat stonily onstage until 11 p.m. as she was booed and taunted with condoms. At home in her Park Avenue penthouse, the long day ended with a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of wine.
“You know, it’s New York,” Black told me with a shrug the next morning. “And people are very opinionated, and so it’s quite an experience. You sit there and you just listen, you don’t respond. They have a point of view, or they’ve got placards, or they wrote songs. You know, it’s part of the American process. I did not bring my BlackBerry. I understand that had been a problem for too many people, including you know who,” she says, a mild jab at her predecessor, Klein, who was criticized for tuning out the demonstrators by reading e-mail. “But one could understand why you’d want to be on your BlackBerry, just doing whatever, crossword puzzles.” Last week, near the end of a raucous marathon hearing on school closings that went until 1:30 A.M., Black was less sanguine. When the crowd greeted her shouting for quiet with a mocking “Awwww,” Black topped it with an “Awwww” drenched in sarcasm. Then the mayor’s appointees to the panel voted unanimously to shut ten schools. Two days later, another twelve were axed. That night’s crowd chanted, “Black is wack” and “Black must go.” The week’s casualties included eight schools Bloomberg had opened.
What does Black think the furious reaction to her appointment says about the state of the school system? “I just kind of march forward,” she says. “They are going to have their own point of view. They’re either going to support me or they’re not. I’ve said I’m here to listen, we have the same goals: Children first.”
For someone who has spent her adult life as a saleswoman, Black can be surprisingly tone-deaf. But the problem isn’t that simple. “When you, for many, many years, have been talking to a crowd of people who depend on you for their salaries, it’s very basic. Nobody talks back to you in that room,” a former Hearst colleague says. “These people will talk back to her. This will continue to be a very difficult transition unless she has an intuitive side to her. I don’t know if she lacks one or she hasn’t had to practice it for fifteen years.” When Bloomberg selected her as chancellor, Black had to know she’d be caricatured as a rich Upper East Side elitist; with the schools scraping for cash, did she consider turning down a salary, a more or less symbolic move at her tax bracket but one that might have made her appointment more palatable? “No,” she says firmly. “I don’t think at the end of the day it would have meant a hill of beans.” Well, she did take a pay cut—to $250,000. “That’s for sure!” she says, laughing. “I’ve done my deal.”