Months of Searching Still Hasn’t Found New Schools Chancellor

Two months ago, Mayor de Blasio announced that schools chancellor Carmen Fariña would step down, but so far a replacement has not been named.

It is arguably the highest-profile job in elementary and secondary education: chancellor of the New York City school system, with its 1.1 million students and $31 billion annual budget. And yet, two months after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Chancellor Carmen Fariña would retire, the spot remains unfilled.

That the mayor has not yet made a choice — he said the administration had already been searching for several months in late December — points to the challenge of finding a match between a politically ambitious mayor with close ties to the teachers’ union and a candidate with the requisite managerial skill and national reputation.

Ms. Fariña remains in the job and will leave “in the next month or so,” the mayor’s press secretary, Eric Phillips, said last week.

Among the candidates under consideration is Barbara M. Jenkins, the superintendent of the Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla. The district serves about 200,000 students, 66 percent of whom are Hispanic or black. Dr. Jenkins has led some similar initiatives to Ms. Fariña’s, notably a major push to increase the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses. Under her leadership, the district in 2014 won the Broad Prize for Urban Education, in part for narrowing racial and economic achievement gaps and for increasing college readiness.

She is under consideration by the de Blasio team, according to someone informed about the search who requested anonymity to speak about confidential conversations.

Dr. Jenkins did not respond to an email and a phone call.

Another candidate who has been considered, MaryEllen Elia, is the New York State education commissioner, and would be a more conservative choice. Ms. Elia, 69, a former superintendent of schools in Florida’s Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, has pursued a modest and conciliatory course, and she gets along well with Ms. Fariña. But a person with knowledge of the search said that she was probably a long shot given concerns about her effectiveness in her current job.

A spokeswoman for the state education department said that Ms. Elia “has had no discussions about this.”

Kathleen Cashin, a member of the Board of Regents and a former superintendent in New York City, has also been considered, according to the person informed about the search. Dr. Cashin has been a critic of the state’s Common Core-aligned tests and of using test scores to evaluate teachers.

Dr. Cashin said she has not been interviewed.

Under Mr. de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, the city was recognized as a hotbed of education reform, a front-runner in the push to use data, especially test scores, to evaluate schools, principals and teachers. Mr. Bloomberg’s schools chancellor, Joel Klein, began giving schools letter grades and pioneered the practice of closing low-performing schools and replacing them with new schools on a large scale.

Under Mr. de Blasio and Ms. Fariña, New York City’s direction has been symbolic of a larger national retreat from the data-driven approach. “A little bit of the air has gone out of the reform balloon,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank. If the movement’s preferred strategies were “going to drive watershed changes in outcomes in American education, we would have seen evidence of it by now, and I just don’t think we have,” he said.

During his first campaign, Mr. de Blasio promised to de-emphasize test scores, end the school grading system and put a pause on closures. He has kept those promises. The Bloomberg administration fought with the teachers’ union; Mr. de Blasio was endorsed by it.

Ms. Fariña has focused on strategies like reforming school discipline, encouraging teacher collaboration and putting social services in schools. Mr. de Blasio’s biggest success has come in expanding prekindergarten for all children, and the education department has used the idea of equity across schools to add algebra in more middle schools and increase access to Advanced Placement courses. It now offers the SAT free to all high school students.

While critics see the de Blasio administration’s efforts as small-bore, supporters say that this work can make a big difference.

“I think it’s not well understood outside of New York how much this chancellor has emphasized instruction,” said Lynette Guastaferro, the executive director of Teaching Matters, an organization that supports schools in New York City in increasing teacher effectiveness.

For the next chancellor, Ms. Guastaferro said, “The opportunity is to take the ideas that are in play now and to take them to the next level.”

But the system remains sharply segregated, with seemingly intractable achievement gaps and little action by the administration to push for integration.

Mr. de Blasio’s search committee is made up of insiders from City Hall and the Education Department. Mr. de Blasio has pledged not to choose someone from outside education, as Mr. Bloomberg did twice, and the committee is focusing on people who have previously run urban districts. Given the makeup of the city’s schools, which are nearly 70 percent black and Hispanic, many expect a new chancellor who looks like the student body.

Making things harder, the job is relatively low paid. Ms. Fariña’s current salary is $234,569. The superintendent in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest district with more than 640,000 students, makes $350,000.

Mr. de Blasio’s relationship with the teachers’ union has led some to suggest that Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and former president of the city union, will have veto power over the choice. Ms. Weingarten said she had “not had one conversation with the mayor about this,” though she said some candidates had called to consult with her before being interviewed.

Ms. Weingarten said that she was “not pushing for anybody” but that she believed Kelvin R. Adams, the superintendent of the St. Louis public schools, could do the job. When Dr. Adams was appointed in 2008, the state board of education had revoked the district’s accreditation and given control to an appointed board. Since then, the district, which serves close to 22,000 students, roughly 80 percent of them African-American, has improved significantly, and its accreditation was restored last year.

Asked through a spokeswoman whether he had been interviewed for the job, Dr. Adams declined to comment.

Mr. Phillips, the mayor’s spokesman, said on Wednesday that Mr. de Blasio would make a decision soon.

Paul Hill, a professor at the University of Washington and the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said that there was a cyclical nature to the leadership of school systems, where the aggressive innovations of an outsider like Mr. Klein lead to demands for “an insider, somebody that educators identify with,” like Ms. Fariña, who had been a teacher and principal in New York.

He said that New York was due now for another outsider, if perhaps one less confrontational than Mr. Klein. What is needed, Dr. Hill said, is “somebody that thinks about the system as a system.”

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