Volume 80, Number 34 | January 20 - 26, 2011
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Photo by Aline Reynolds

From left, Cathie Black; Judy Rapfogel, Assembly Speaker Silver’s chief of staff; and C.B. 1’s Julie Menin at last week’s School Overcrowding Task Force meeting.

Parents see red after Black makes birth-control quip

By Aline Reynolds

Cathie Black, the city’s new schools chancellor, had little to say at last Thursday’s School Overcrowding Task Force meeting organized by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. But the little that she did say made headlines and sparked outrage around the city.

Task force member Eric Greenleaf, a business professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has done extensive research on the population boom in Lower Manhattan and the resulting overcrowding in its public schools. When he presented his latest data to Black on Thursday, showing an estimated need for 1,000 additional seats by 2015, Black made a verbal gaffe that riled up the entire education community.

“Could we just have some birth control for a while? It would really help us all out,” joked Black.

The comment was “shocking,” according to Downtown parent Deborah Somerville and others.

Tina Schiller, a parent at P.S. 234, at Greenwich and Chambers Sts., who was opposed to Black’s appointment as chancellor, said she was not surprised by Black’s joke.

“It just kind of reiterates the lightness in which the D.O.E. takes our plight,” she said.

Others, like Tom Moore, P.T.A. co-president at Millennium High School, at 75 Broad St., merely took it as the Department of Education chief’s poor attempt at humor.

“I don’t think she meant anything by it,” he said, though adding, “it was probably in retrospect not a good idea.”

People elsewhere around the city also took offense at Black’s comment.

City Councilmember Julissa Ferreras of Queens, chairperson of the City Council’s Women’s Issues Committee, said she was “appalled and offended” by Black’s statement.

“The job of a chancellor,” said Ferreras, “is to ensure that our city’s children are being educated and have the tools to learn — not judge the reproductive choices of women in our city.”

Overcrowding, Ferreras continued, is not a joke to the children and parents in her district who are also dealing with the issue.

Natalie Ravitz, D.O.E. communications director, said in a statement that the chancellor takes the issue of overcrowding “very seriously, which is why she was engaged in a discussion with Lower Manhattan parents on the subject.”

“She regrets if she left a different impression by making an offhanded joke in the course of that conversation,” Ravitz said of Black.

Julie Menin, chairperson of Community Board 1, said she was “troubled” by Black’s overall feedback, which she considered to be “glib,” in that Black didn’t identify plans to combat “the very serious issue of school overcrowding.”

The chancellor made another verbal slip in describing D.O.E.’s rough financial terrain that she’s trying to navigate as chancellor.

“I don’t mean this in any flip way, but it is many Sophie’s choices,” she said of the hard decisions that must be made.

Her comment was an allusion to “Sophie’s Choice, the William Styron novel and film in which the character Sophie Zawistowski, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, was forced to choose which of her two children lived or died.

Moore and others deemed it a poor analogy. There are a number of other parallels she could have drawn, Moore said; the one that Black went with was, in his opinion, “overly dramatic, and probably a little distasteful.”

Menin was upset with the chancellor’s quip.

“Cracking jokes and telling Downtown parents, even in jest, to use more birth control, and referring to [D.O.E.’s] choices as a ‘Sophie’s choice’ did not demonstrate a real and concrete, on-the-ground understanding of what parents face,” Menin wrote in an e-mail.

“The Dept. of Ed. has already made Sophie’s choices,” Schiller said in an e-mail. “They’ve already made clear we’re going to have a segregated system,” in terms of separating students by performance level.

In contrast, Speaker Silver, who led the task force meeting, was satisfied with Black’s performance. In a written statement, he said he was pleased that the chancellor attended the meeting and was able to hear firsthand from parents.

“Jokes aside,” said Silver, “I think she really heard the message that Lower Manhattan schools are in the midst of an overcrowding crisis, and I am hopeful we can work together to find a solution.”

Tamara Rowe, a Millennium High School parent and a task force member, felt cautiously optimistic about Black’s attempt to forge ties with the Downtown education community.

Rowe, like many task force members, appreciated Black’s appearance at the meeting, pointing out that Joel Klein never even attended one of Silver’s task force meetings in the two-and-a-half years of its existence while he was schools chancellor. But Rowe doubts Black’s willingness to change things.

“I think she’s trying to listen,” said Rowe. “I think I won’t know what it really means until I see the results.”

During the meeting, Menin and other task force members disparaged D.O.E. for not implementing a long-term strategy to relieve overcrowding.

“Everything is done piecemeal,” Menin told Black.

Members of the task force — mostly comprised of Downtown public school parents and school principals — discussed the lack of foresight D.O.E. has recently exhibited in accommodating Downtown schoolchildren, which, they say, led to the neighborhood’s current overcrowding crisis. Several members voiced concerns about designating 26 Broadway for an unscreened high school — meaning applicants aren’t evaluated by any performance criteria — as well as giving over empty classroom space in the Tweed Courthouse, on Chambers St. by City Hall, to an untested charter school.

In her second week, Black said she had “no gigantic new vision,” but that she and her team are “looking at things that are working.” She said she anticipated there would be “tough sledding” in deciding how to allocate the limited funding D.O.E. will receive in the coming fiscal year.

“Trying to balance all the competing forces is not easy at all,” Black said, noting upper Manhattan school districts are dealing with overcrowding issues similar to those Downtown.

“It’s clear that your needs are great, and we’ll try to deal with them as well as we possibly can,” said Black.

Task force member Shino Tanikawa, who is also a member of Community Education Council District 2 and a parent at P.S. 3, at Hudson and Christopher Sts., said the new chancellor doesn’t seem to have a vision for public schools, either Downtown or citywide.

“It’s time for her to think about what her priorities are for the city,” said Tanikawa. “You have to do planning. There’s no excuse for it.”

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