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In her book, chancellor appointee says she's no data "whiz"

City officials’ argument to convince State Education Commissioner David Steiner that publishing executive Cathie Black is qualified to be schools chancellor is based on the idea that her managerial skills will be necessary during the coming years’ intense financial pressures.

But in her memoir-cum-business advice guide, “Basic Black,” the chancellor appointee describes her skills as far more attuned to sales and marketing than financial analysis. While she likes the operational side of business, she writes, “too much data and too many spreadsheets make my eyes glaze over.”

In a section of the book called “Power = knowing your strengths and weaknesses,” Black explains that knowing that she prefers broader strategy to rows of numbers has helped her decide which tasks to delegate:

Over the years I’ve taken care to work on that weakness — taking financial management courses, asking for help when I need it, and not being afraid to let the numbers folks do the thing they’re best at. It wouldn’t make sense for me to pretend to be a whiz where I’m not.

Black’s analysis of her own managerial strengths and weaknesses is one of many insights that her 2007 book gives into how she might approach her new job at Tweed Courthouse.

It also gives clues to why Black said yes to the job of schools chancellor. In a section on how to decide which job offers to take and which to pass over, she describes two separate instances where she was offered jobs outside of magazine publishing but turned them down. In one case, she declined an offer to become president of a well-known cosmetics company. She refused because, as she writes, they needed “someone who lives and breathes cosmetics,” and Black did not think she was that person.

Similarly, when she was offered a top position at a Silicon Valley start-up, she turned it down because she didn’t feel familiar enough with the field:

It would have been an exciting and potentially lucrative new field for me, but as I walked around the company’s offices, looking at the rows and rows of people silently tapping away at their computers, I just kept thinking, “I’m such a fish out of water here. What in the world do I bring to this party?”

But Black says there are times when it makes sense to take a job that’s far afield from your interests and expertise —  when the new job may be a strategic stepping-stone to something else.

“Don’t be afraid to take steps in your career that are strictly for strategic purposes,” she writes. “Yes, you want to follow your dreams, but sometimes the path to your dreams involves a carefully thought-out detour.”

The book also gives clues about how Black may run the Department of Education’s central administration. Black has said that she intends to lean heavily on the team of deputy chancellors that Klein has put together — though one of those deputies quit almost immediately after Bloomberg’s announcement and it’s unclear whether others plan to stay.

She writes in the book that, unlike many executives arriving at a new company, she prefers keeping the old team in place rather than making drastic changes right away. When she was hired at Hearst, she writes, she began making changes so slowly that she attracted criticism from outside observers.

“We needed an infusion of new energy, and part of the reason I was hired was to provide it,” she writes. “Yet I didn’t storm in with bazookas blazing. The last thing I wanted to do was come in and shake things up just for the sake of shaking, which would have led to upheaval and mistrust on the part of Hearst management.”

In the book, Black describes how she approaches laying off staff, which she may be forced to do next year in the face of steep budget reductions. She explains how she made the decision to shutter a struggling magazine, experience that some have suggested might come in handy when the city tries to close as many as 60 schools this year.

Black also writes about her commitment to diversity in the workplace. The Department of Education and the Bloomberg administration have been criticized for their largely white, male ranks. Black writes that she has received criticism for hiring too many female executives; at Hearst, she dispensed with that idea by acknowledging it directly at an executive meeting, then asking all of the women in the room to stand. The women made up about one-third of the meeting’s attendees.

She writes that she prefers to hire employees of “different backgrounds, ages, temperaments, and experience” not just for ethical reasons but also because it makes good business sense.

“It’s best to mix it up, as hiring people like yourself simply brings you more of the same perspective and skills, rather than the diversity of skills that more often leads to success,” she writes.

Throughout the book, Black describes an approach to managing that is mostly personable but also direct and sometimes almost brusque. And she says she has a thick skin for hearing when people think she is wrong.

“You can take it or leave it, but don’t fear criticism,” she writes.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”