By Jill Colvin
UPPER EAST SIDE — Critics of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's controversial choice for schools chancellor are calling into question the independence of a state-picked panel that will convene Tuesday to determine whether she is qualified for the job.
But a growing number of good-government groups and schools advocates say the make-up of the eight-member advisory panel appointed by State Education Commissioner David Steiner leaves little doubt that Black will be approved.
Critics point out that a majority of panel members have some connection with the Bloomberg administration.
At least three panel members used to work for the city under Klein.
Panel member Michele Cahill, now vice-president at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, was once senior counselor to the city's chancellor for education policy, while Andres Alonso, now the CEO of Baltimore’s schools, served at the city’s deputy chancellor for Teaching and Learning. Jean-Claude Brizard, superintendent of the Rochester City School District, is city's the former executive director for secondary schools.
The panel's defenders say the group's experience working for the city means they are knowledgeable about what the chancellor job entails. But critics say the selections make it look like the fix is in.
Gene Russianoff, a senior attorney with the New York Public Interest Research Group, which has not taken a stance on Black’s appointment, said the close connections will make many observers wary.
"I don’t think it will be seen as independent," Russianoff said. "I don’t think [Steiner] is doing the mayor any favor by picking people that can be seen as having conflicts."
A spokesman for Steiner and the state Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.
Panel member Louise Mirrer, the president and CEO of the New York Historical Society, to which Bloomberg has donated tens of thousands of dollars, is of particular concern, the New York Times reported. Mirrer also chairs the board of the NYC Leadership Academy, which Bloomberg launched in 2003.
"I think the chances of Ms. Mirrer fighting against the waiver are pretty darn small given the tangle of relationships," Russianoff said.
Critics have also raised questions about Cahill, who was herself denied a waiver to serve as Klein's deputy chancellor in 2004. Only chancellors, not deputies, are eligible for the waivers, the Times reported at the time.
Cahill is now a vice president at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which Bloomberg used to donate millions to hundreds of cultural and neighborhood institutions over the years.
Cahill declined a request for an interview.
Meanwhile, the panel's chair, Susan Fuhrman, president of Teachers College, has received tens of millions of dollars in city Department of Education contracts, including one worth $16 million, NY1 reported.
Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, which has vehemently opposed Black's selection, said that the panel’s composition immediately raised red flags.
"I am simply shocked that they are acting so boldly and flagrantly in their wielding of power by stacking the advisory panel with Bloomberg allies and supplicants," said Meyers, who arranged a series of protests against the appointment and wrote a letter to Steiner urging him to deny the waiver request.
"It looks to me like the fix is in," he said.
Leonie Haimson, the executive director of education blog Class Size Matters who has been organizing a petition drive against Black, said that the there are numerous people Steiner could have chosen who aren’t indebted to the mayor.
"The deep financial and professional ties between the panel members and the mayor are very troubling," she said. "I think in any proper conflict of interest decision, you don’t want someone that worked for somebody making the decision."
Haimson and about a dozen others delivered over 13,000 signatures to Steiner’s apartment on the Upper East Side Monday evening urging him to deny the waiver.
At a press conference on his doorstep, the group decried Black’s appointment as well as Steiner’s picks for the panel.
"Five off them owe their livelihoods to this mayor, this chancellor and this city," said Lisa Donlan, a parent and president of District 1’s Community Education Council on the Lower East Side.
But United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew praising Steiner's choices, pointing to their experience in education.
"All of these people have heavy-duty backgrounds and success in education, so obviously David Steiner is clearly looking at this from the educational side, as he should be," Mulgrew said in a statement.
While the state will not comment on how long it will take for Steiner to make his decision, Meyers said he expects the process to be quick, with a waiver as soon as Wednesday, the day after the panel convenes.
Klein will officially step down from his post in less than six weeks.