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Almost Chancellor

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NYSchools002

Remembering the man who was -- almost -- Chancellor of the New York City public school system, and -- with apologies for the self-indulgence -- my brief and deeply unproductive foray at the old Board of Education.

A small but vocal group is trying block the proposed appointment of media executive Cathie Black as head of the New York City school system, most immediately by convincing a group appointed by the state education commissioner to deny Black the legal waiver she needs in order to make up for her lack of formal training in education. It's a post-Waiting For 'Superman', pre-holiday referendum on Mayor Bloomberg's influence and the current state of education reform all wrapped into one.

As of this moment, nobody knows for sure whether Black will make it through this last hurdle, or how she'll do on the job. But if she ends up not getting the job it won't be the first time. You've probably already heard about the state's refused to give Robert F. Wagner a waiver after Mayor Koch nominated him in 1983. But there's another example that's worth remembering: a local guy named Dan Domenech got -- and lost -- the job in a 24 hour period in late September 1995. The day Domenech was supposed to become NYC schools chancellor I was there in the building, a special assistant to chancellor Ramon (Ray) Cortines, whom Domenech was going to replace.

Hard as it may be for any but the oldsters among us to remember, these were the days of a semi-autonomous Board of Education still headquartered at 110 Livingston Street, an infamously soul-sucking building in downtown Brooklyn (that's since been turned into condos). This was way before legislators had given the schools over to the Mayor, and well before the current era during which school reform has become "cool" (according to The Atlantic's Peter Osnos). In 1995, Chicago was the only big city to have mayoral control -- and the chancellor was still picked by board members, a majority of them appointed by the borough presidents rather than the mayor.

But that didn't mean that Mayor Giuliani didn't covet control over the schools and wasn't already engaged in battle with the floundering system. Cortines, the courtly superintendent from California, was leaving with only two years under his belt, worn down by the incessant constant criticism from City Hall (and, though Ray would never say it, the lack of adequate political insulation provided to him by the Board). Former MTA head Richard Ravitch had momentarily emerged as a Mayoral favorite to replace Cortines only to withdraw his name from consideration in apparent disgust with the selection process and the byzantine governance system he'd have to operate under. Kingsborough Community College president Leon Goldstein was a front-runner but then came under a cloud of suspicion.

Eventually, Domenech emerged as the top pick remaining. Confident and accomplished, the Cuban-born Suffolk County (LI) superintendent had grown up near the Board headquarters and had begun his career teaching sixth grade in Queens. Over and over again, he reassured the board that he would have no trouble standing up to the mayor -- a line of questioning that would later prove ironic. On a Friday evening at the end of September, the board offered him the job at a meeting in the World Trade Center, news of which was reported the next morning. The formal vote was scheduled to take place that evening at 110 Livingston Street, during an emergency meeting that many thought would be nothing more than an anointment.

Though Cortines himself was not there that day, I was in the building still serving as one of Cortines' special assistants. He had offered me the job then announced his resignation just before I was scheduled to start. Still, I came -- I was desperate to do something more exciting than working for a junior Democratic Senator (California's Dianne Feinstein) with little interest in education issues (during a Republican-controlled Congress bent on enacting its "Contract With America"). But it had been a miserable experience working for a lame duck appointee in a building full of -- yes, I'll say it -- "Dickensian" characters like you only meet in the cubicles of massive bureaucracies. At 31, I might well have been the youngest college-educated person on the 10th floor. I missed having Internet access from my desktop. I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself for having moved up to New York City for a job that had, suddenly, become very short-term.

The day of the official vote, Domenech arrived early with his wife and eldest son and they spent much of the day biding their time in an empty conference room on the tenth floor even as rumors spread that City Hall was working to sway board members and block the appointment. I remember seeing him and his family, all dressed up, thinking that somehow he must not know that the tide was turning against him. Otherwise why would he bother to wait? But that's what he did, and then when things finally got started he and his family walked in and sat in the front row of the board meeting room, surrounded by cameras and reporters, directly facing the board members. I watched from the back with a pit in my stomach as the board members entered and voted 4-3 against him.

Of course, Domenech knew what was likely to happen that day. He'd begun getting phone calls from board members since the night before telling him that they were under pressure from City Hall and would have to vote against him. He didn't think his presence would make a difference. "I felt like I needed to see the process through," says Domenech, now head of the national association of school administrators. "I wasn't ashamed of what was happening."

A week after its stunning reversal, the board picked Rudy Crew from Tacoma, Washington, professionally indistinguishable from Domenech though he would be the city's first black chancellor in six years. A few weeks later I packed up my belongings in a box and slunk out the front door of the building, eventually heading back to Washington with little to show for my time in New York except a leather jacket and a nasty smoking habit. Domenech went back to Suffolk County and then two years later got the job as head of the Fairfax County public schools near DC. Crew served as Chancellor for nearly five years. Cortines is now head of the LA public schools.

Alexander Russo is a freelance writer who loves education so much he has three education blogs -- This Week In Education for national news, District299 for Chicago school news, and Hot For Education for the intersection of pop culture and education. Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors, his book about a school turnaround effort in South Central LA, is coming out in April.