Somewhere over the quasi-permanent scaffolding that comes between Harold Levy and his tenth-floor view of downtown Brooklyn, there's a sun that's shining. But he'll have to take it on faith. The chancellor of New York City's public schools, ever in pinstripes with a white handkerchief and banker's contrast-collar shirt, is holding court in a long, wide office that his predecessor, Rudy Crew, had used only for ceremonial purposes. Mud-colored carpet covers the floor, but Levy has worked to personalize the place: On a sofa rests a little pillow with the crocheted maxim NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED, and on the wall above it is a portrait of Sir Thomas More.
Sir Thomas More, as Levy tells anyone who asks, studied law at Oxford and aspired to an intellectual life as a monk, until an overriding sense of duty propelled him into British politics. After becoming chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1525, he begged to differ with his boss, Henry XIII, over a point of ecclesiastical law -- and was beheaded for his trouble. "He's a lawyer, he's an educator, he's a real chancellor, and he died for his principles," Levy explains, savoring the pun. "It's a sort of inspirational reminder that things could be worse."
Call it Harold Levy's version of the serenity prayer -- and, perhaps, a personal cautionary tale. While Levy is no monk, he did renounce a seven-figure job at Citigroup in January to follow what he calls his "better nature" to lead the schools. He knows that running this system, the largest in the country, has become the ultimate thankless task: The Board of Education comes under fire so often that whoever's in charge, as Levy's own wife, Pat Sapinsley, has worried, is "a little bit of a sitting duck." Each time a chancellor ambles into town, it's like High Noon: He's hailed as a savior who will fight for the children -- defending them from politicians and bureaucrats. Then, after a lightning-fast honeymoon, each is martyred, taking the rap for a systemic blunder or pressured out by a testy mayor.
But so far, Levy is a little different. Unlike the many who have parachuted into New York for the job, he is local, independent, and rich. He went to an Ivy League school and, by way of Oxford, an Ivy League law school. He's cultivated the friendship of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, real-estate powerhouse Jack Rudin, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. His Wall Street career -- he survived three corporate mergers, proceeding from Salomon Brothers to Travelers to Citigroup, becoming the current company's head of global compliance -- brought him into contact with mayoral confidants Tony Coles, Randy Levine, and Randy Mastro, all once and future private-sector lawyers. "They'd all die for $10 million in litigation from us," Levy says.
"I want to get people in the teaching system who will ace that test," Levy says of the certification exam, "who will bring a certain intellectual capacity to the job."
Friends like these have done much to inoculate Levy from the mayoral harangues that politically isolated his predecessors Rudy Crew and Ray Cortines. After first refusing even to speak to Levy, Rudy Giuliani publicly commended him on the first day of school for presiding over a colossal summer-school program in which a full third of the students failed -- the prevailing presumption being that the results could have been a whole lot worse. "I had low expectations for it," Levy acknowledges now, smiling at what could have been an early Waterloo.
In short order, he's reconnected the board with other critics who have long considered it a bunker. Edward Stancik, the dogged investigator of school corruption and nemesis of many a schools chancellor, called Levy in March to tell him he was the first chancellor he's ever actually heard use the C-word -- cheating -- in public. "I think Levy's really smart," Stancik attests. Diane Ravitch, the conservative schools critic, came out against Levy's summer-school program. Then he invited her to drop by; now she calls him "fresh-faced" and "a good man doing a valiant job." And a few weeks ago, Levy lunched at Nobu with Ted Forstmann, the relentless leveraged-buyout master who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to airlift kids out of public school and into private school. When Forstmann told Levy that the public schools were the last great monopoly, Levy cheerfully agreed -- and added that anyone who thought they would go the way of Ma Bell was kidding himself. "The idea that private education will be anything more than a sideshow is illusory," Levy told him. Forstmann picked up the check.
As Levy's honeymoon winds down, he's started wearing his independence on his sleeve. His harshest coverage came last month during his contract negotiation, when he declared his intention to pocket a $10,000-a-month housing allowance in lieu of living in the Brooklyn Heights townhouse that the board reserves for chancellors. The move smacked of corporate hardball, and Levy won, concluding the negotiation last week with no apologies. The maneuver was, to him, a symbolic way of reminding the board that he doesn't need this job. "There was all this language about giving the chancellor a form of tenure," Levy tells me, "and I crossed all that stuff out. I want this to be a modern contract: If the board doesn't like me, I leave, and if I don't like the board, I leave. If I had to move into that building, it would have compromised my ability to withdraw."
But what about those editorials accusing him of Wall Street greed? What went through his head when he picked up the Daily News and read, "What next, chancellor? Servants?"
Levy laughs and delivers a whaddya-gonna-do shrug. "I usually like the Daily News editorials," he says.
The schools, of course, suffer from ills that some powerful friends can't cure. Levy understands that he has arrived at the board at its worst moment since the 1993 asbestos crisis. Over the next five years, the city expects to lose more than half its 78,000 teachers, mostly through attrition. An entire generation of teachers who came in during the Great Society are now poised to retire, with practically no one willing to replace them.
The teacher shortage is national in scope but most acute in New York. It speaks not just to a lack of interest in entering teaching as a profession but to a growing consensus that this city simply isn't a good place to be a teacher. A sampling of what scares people off: Sex attacks in the schools have tripled, according to the latest statistics. Standardized-test scores wallow below 50 percent. The system suffers from budget shortfalls, overcrowded and crumbling facilities, and salaries that can't compete with those of the suburbs. If that isn't enough for the chancellor's rookie year, a potentially incendiary teacher's-contract negotiation looms with a November 15 deadline, and the mayor wants him to slash 75 percent of the board's bureaucracy.
If Levy privately flinches at the scope of the job he's taken on -- "On several occasions, he's said to me, 'Ray, you never told me how difficult it is,' " reports his friend Ray Cortines, now in San Francisco -- publicly, he's all smiles. In person, he alternates between Ivy League cheekiness and a restless high-mindedness: Politically, he comes off both as a purebred West Side liberal who's following his social conscience (while, it must be noted, sending his own children to private school) and as a tough Wall Street type, ready to whip the board into shape.
Levy's corporate background belies the fact that he's a longtime public-education wonk. As the head of a 1995 commission on school facilities formed by Cortines, he drew attention to the aging infrastructure. As a member of the State Board of Regents, he led the charge to extract more state funding for city schools. He's certainly not there to tear the place apart. Yet this is the same chancellor who, in the past few months, has agreed to privatize some of the system's most troubled schools, who challenged the teachers' union by launching an alternative-certification program, and who vowed not to come back from the teachers' negotiation table without major changes. "I think there are two Harold Levys, and I've seen both of them," says Sol Stern, the conservative Manhattan Institute fellow and staunch opponent of the union. "One is wedded to the idea that the schools need more money. And the other understands there are structural problems in the way the system is set up. We're already beginning to see he's leaning toward the structural approach. But I think he's of two minds about it."