With Walcott's Exit, Mayoral Candidates Are Eyeing His Successor
TWEED COURTHOUSE — As Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott prepares to depart the Department of Education, mayoral hopefuls are already lining up their top choices for his replacement.
Top of their list is a schools chief who can help distance their new administration from the perceived failures of Bloomberg's decade in charge, but one with strong insight into how the Department of Education works, insiders told DNAinfo New York.
Walcott became chancellor in 2011, but he'd been at Bloomberg's side since the mayor wrested control of the city's public school system from the state in 2002. He became the mayor's third schools chief following the brief but resoundingly-criticized tenure of former media mogul Cathie Black.
Walcott warned that his successor will be in a "unique" situation after he leaves on Dec. 31, jumping in mid-year to take over "a lot of new things that [are] in process right now, like our teacher evaluation, the total ramping up of the new Common Core and making sure we continue in our special ed reform.
"There are a number of major initiatives that are on the table that need to be maintained," he said during an interview with DNAinfo New York.
The veteran public school teacher and administrator said he's "not sure what I'm doing next," but he said he's focusing all his attention between now and then on the task at hand.
"I'm very focused on making sure we run the agency until I leave," he said.
While the mayoral candidates wouldn't discuss their choices of replacement, among those who have been mentioned by campaign insiders as potential Walcott successors is the department’s chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, whose name is on many observers’ shortlist.
“He's someone that I think really wants to stay,” said a former Department of Education official, noting Polakow-Suransky’s role in implementing the new federally-imposed Common Core testing requirements.
Originally from South Africa, Polakow-Suransky began his career in education as a fifth-grade math teacher in Manhattan. He moved up the ranks, eventually founding the Bronx International High School in 2002. He was installed in his current position as part of the compromise to make Cathie Black, who lacked education experience, the schools chancellor.
Another name that has been floated is State Education Commissioner John King, who helped broker the teacher evaluation deal between the United Federation of Teachers and the Bloomberg administration. King also oversaw the implementation of the controversial Common Core testing requirements, not just in the city but throughout the state.
The insider's knowledge of the core could make him an attractive candidate as the city rushes to adopt the curriculum, but some observers say it could be hard to convince King to drop his role as state commissioner to take what could be seen as a demotion.
King's family has strong connections to the city school system. His father was the first black principal in Brooklyn, who rose to be the executive deputy superintendent of schools. A graduate of Harvard and Yale, King was managing director for the nonprofit charter school company Uncommon Schools before joining the state education department in 2009. He became commissioner in 2011.
Cami Anderson, the head of the Newark, N.J. school system, has received national recognition for her efforts to improve schools there and is also considered a contender.
While Anderson's biography consists of a stint as a teacher shortly after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, most of her experience has been as an administratior. She was the CEO of Teach for America for five years before joining the principal training group New Leaders for New Schools in 2002.
She joined the New York City Departmenet of Education in 2006 as a superintendent of the city's alternative high schools. She left New York City to head the Newark system in 2011.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the current CEO of the Chicago public schools, spent decades as a teacher and a principal in the New York City school system, working in Manhattan and Brooklyn. She went on to manage a number of the city's school districts.
Byrd-Bennett left New York City in 1998 to head up the Cleveland school system, where she stayed until 2006. In 2009, she signed on for the top job in the Detroit school system, where she stayed for two years. She was appointed by former Obama aide and current Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel to her current position last year.
A member of the New York State’s Education Department’s Board of Regents, Kathleen Cashin, has also been mentioned. A former New York City schoolteacher, Cashin was tapped to run one of Bloomberg's 10 school districts in 2003, following his takeover of city schools.
Cashin would later go on to serve as CEO of the Knowledge Network Learning Support Organization, which provided support to struggling schools in the city. A clinical professor at Fordham University, Cashin was appointed to the Board of Regents in 2011.
All potential candidates were either unavailable or declined to comment when approached by DNAinfo New York.
One former DOE official seized on the candidates' balancing act between old and new, warning whoever moves into Gracie Mansion to resist the urge to wipe out the DOE's existing leadership team, calling such a move “shortsighted” and “a waste of talent.”
“It's an organization with 135,000 employees, with a budget of approximately $25 billion,” the source said. “Somebody with intimate knowledge of the system is going to be essential to at least support a new chancellor.”