NEW YORK (AP) - In her first six weeks as head of New York City schools, Cathie Black has been heckled by parent activists - and heckled them back. She joked that birth control was the solution to crowded schools.
The former media executive mockingly teased a throng of angry parents who were shouting at her. A recent poll pegged her approval rating at 21 percent. And opponents are keeping a legal fight alive to block her appointment as schools chancellor because she has no experience as an educator.
"This has not been a good opening round for her," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
But a string of public appearances at dozens of public schools in which Black was smiling and engaging has supporters saying she will prove she has what it takes to oversee the nation's largest school system and its 1 million students.
As chairman of Hearst Magazines, Black oversaw titles including Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Popular Mechanics. She has been credited with starting the publishing successes O, the Oprah Magazine and the Food Network Magazine.
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the surprise choice of Black to replace the departing Joel Klein, he said her private-sector track record would translate into success as schools chancellor, calling her a "superstar manager" who knew how to run things.
But critics assailed Black's lack of experience as an educator. The state education commissioner waived the requirement for credentials so that Black could take the chancellor's job, but only on the condition that she appoint a seasoned educator as second-in-command. Three lawsuits seeking to block the waiver and deny Black the post were thrown out; an appeal was filed earlier this month.
"There's still a viable challenge to her legitimacy as a chancellor," said Arthur Z. Schwartz, a lawyer for parents seeking to block Black's appointment. Said the president of the teachers' union, Michael Mulgrew: "Everything out of her mouth is scripted policy."
The city Department of Education has not granted repeated requests by The Associated Press for an interview with Black and officials didn't immediately respond to requests for comment about Black's tenure.
Bloomberg has made it clear that Black's job is to carry out the policies he and Klein initiated after Bloomberg won mayoral control of the schools in 2002. The Bloomberg administration has closed scores of schools it said were failing, and the list of schools on the chopping block elicits protests each year.
Black presided over raucous meetings on Feb. 1 and Feb. 3, when an appointed panel finalized a vote to close 22 schools.
Black complained at the first meeting that she could not speak over the audience's catcalls. When the crowd responded with a sarcastic "Awww," Black replied, mockingly, "Ohhh."
"It's New York," Black told New York Magazine in an interview published this week. "And people are very opinionated and so it's quite an experience. You sit there and you just listen, you don't respond. They have a point of view, or they've got placards or they wrote songs. You know, it's part of the American process."
State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a public school parent who is among those seeking to deny Black the chancellor's job, criticized her "outburst."
"A public figure has to be able to absorb criticism, not personalize it, and understand where it's coming from on a given issue," Jeffries said.
The mayor blasted the hecklers on his radio show, saying the catcalls were "embarrassing for New York City, for New York state, for America."
Some parents and educators at the 35 schools Black has visited since her appointment said she impressed them.
"She makes you feel comfortable," said Albertina Rivas, PTA president at P.S. 109 in the Bronx, where she says outsiders sometimes visit and act superior. "She makes you feel that you can talk to her about your problems."
Michael Wiltshire, the principal of Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn, said Black was especially pleased that his students can study Chinese.
"She spoke to them about the global economy," Wiltshire said. "She said Hearst Magazines has offices in China."
Stephen Duch, principal at Hillcrest High School in Queens, said Black listened and absorbed information - until she visited a business class where she gave pointers on making a presentation.
"She kind of turned from being a sponge to someone who could really impart information to the kids," Duch said.
But there have been missteps.
The contraceptive quip came at a Jan. 13 meeting of elected officials and parents concerned about overcrowded classrooms in lower Manhattan.
"Could we just have some birth control for a while?" Black said. "It would really help us."
A spokeswoman said later that Black regretted the "off-handed" joke.
But Tricia Joyce, a mother of first-grade twins who was at the meeting, said the joke showed a lack of understanding of the issues, such as post-Sept. 11 tax incentives that sent families into lower Manhattan.
"I was disappointed she wasn't more prepared," Joyce said.
Joyce, however, gives Black credit for at least attending the monthly meeting of the overcrowding task force.
"We never saw Joel Klein," she said. "Not once."
A Marist poll released Feb. 3 found that 21 percent of registered New York City voters think Black is doing an excellent or good job as chancellor. The telephone survey of 508 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. By comparison, a 2003 Quinnipiac University poll taken when Black's predecessor Klein was the new chancellor pegged his approval rating at 46 percent.
Political consultant George Arzt, who knows Black from her days at Hearst, said her numbers can improve.
On a recent trip to chat up legislators in Albany about changing teacher seniority rules, "she was very charming with elected officials," Arzt said.
He said Black can succeed despite her rough start.
"If she goes out there and does what she has to do in meeting with parents and advancing education, she'll do OK," he said. "If she is traumatized by everything that's written in the papers, she won't advance her agenda."