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A Retrospective of Cathleen Black

The former New York City Schools chancellor’s biggest gaffes, missteps, and other embarrassments.

From day one, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to make Hearst executive Cathleen Black the new chancellor of New York City’s public schools, despite her complete lack of education experience, was appalling. Her selection was an affront to students, parents, teachers, and others deeply invested in improving public schools. Still, it would have been hard to imagine that Black’s tenure, which ended on Thursday when she abruptly resigned after only three months on the job, would go as terribly as it did. Filled with gaffes, protests, and, finally, a miserable 17 percent approval rating, Black’s legacy will certainly be one of embarrassment—for the now-former chancellor and Mayor Bloomberg. Here, we look back on some of Black’s greatest, er, worst hits during her brief, tumultuous stint at the helm of the nation’s largest school district

Getting schooled. Immediately after her appointment was announced in November, there were reports of Black “shuttling between her Park Avenue apartment building and her office at Hearst Magazines, shadowed by City Hall aides who are briefing her on education issues.”

Sanitized. Upon visiting some of the city’s schools in early December, Black remarked on how “clean” they were.

Solving the overcrowding problem. Less than two weeks into her chancellorship, Black responded to a question about “huge shortages” of classroom space by saying, “Could we just have some birth control for a while? It could really help us all out a lot.” She was taunted at a later meeting by protesters waving condoms.

Bad metaphor. At the same meeting, Black described tough decisions about school overcrowding as “many Sophie’s choices,” referencing William Styron’s devastating novel about a mother forced to make an impossible choice during the Holocaust.

Heckling hecklers. In early February, Black presided over a meeting about school closings. She didn’t speak until the very end of the seven-hour discussion—at which point, she angrily met boos from the crowed by mocking them with an exaggerated, sarcastic, “Ooohhhhhh.”

The backlash. Soon after the heckling incident, the chancellor was greeted at another meeting with chants of, “Cathie Black is whack.” “That little ugly sound you made on TV, jeering our parents, is the height of disrespect,” Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron said.

Flirtation. In a New York profile of the new chancellor, Black commented to the reporter, who had his schools’ security pass stuck to his left thigh, “That’s kind of sexy.” The reporter later wrote, “She’s either admirably authentic or remarkably clueless about the brighter spotlight that now follows her.

Lack of knowledge. When asked in February about the potential effects of looming teacher layoffs, Black said, “How it would impact the size of classrooms ... I don't know for a fact.”

Jumping ship. The New York Times reported April 6 that, since Black’s appointment, “over half of the city’s top education officials have left.”

Seyward Darby is online editor of The New Republic. Tiffany Stanley is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

Follow @tnr and on @seywarddarby Twitter.