This is literally one of the most important decisions I'll ever make as mayor and one of the most personal. Taking on the lives of 1.2 million kids might be one of the most sacred missions in government anywhere in this country. —New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio
NEW YORK — A former teacher, principal and longtime advocate of early childhood education will be the next leader of the nation's largest public school system, New York City's incoming mayor announced Monday.
Carmen Farina, also a former deputy chancellor of city schools, will bring a wealth of insider's experience and fresh ideas to the job, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio said.
"She knows it because she's lived it," he said.
"This is literally one of the most important decisions I'll ever make as mayor and one of the most personal," said de Blasio, whose two children have attended public schools. "Taking on the lives of 1.2 million kids might be one of the most sacred missions in government anywhere in this country."
Farina has been a longtime adviser to de Blasio and helped inform his education platform, including his signature proposal to offer universal pre-kindergarten and expanded after-school programs for middle school students.
At a Brooklyn news conference announcing her appointment, she also talked about her early years as a public school student. She said she was initially treated as if she were invisible, because she was the child of Spanish immigrants and had a last name that was difficult for the teacher to pronounce. (It's fah-REE'-nyah.)
"It's such a privilege to be able to come back to a system that has so much work yet to be done, but to be doing it from a stance of a progressive agenda," Farina said Monday. "We're going to have a system here where parents are real partners."
De Blasio will take office Jan. 1, becoming the first mayor in recent memory to preside over the five boroughs while having a child in public schools.
Farina, 70, will take over the school system at a crucial juncture.
Outgoing Republican-turned-independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg was elected on a campaign promise of being "an education mayor" and dramatically increased government spending on education. But de Blasio, a Democrat, campaigned against many of the policies that Bloomberg championed during his 12 years in office, such as closing schools that are deemed to be failing and boosting the growth of charter schools by giving them free space in public school buildings. De Blasio also has criticized the outgoing administration for being over-reliant on standardized testing.
The transition to a new administration is the first since Bloomberg won mayoral control of the schools in 2002, and de Blasio and Farina would not say what changes they may implement in the middle of a school year.
Farina, the daughter of immigrants from Spain who fled the Franco regime, has held several posts within the city school system. She was once a teacher at Public School 29 in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn and later a principal at P.S. 6, a high-achieving school on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
It was there that she first met de Blasio. They began working together in 2001 after Farina moved to Brooklyn's District 15 school board, of which de Blasio was a member. De Blasio, who lives in the Park Slope neighborhood, sent both of his children to a school within Farina's district.
She de-emphasized using standardized testing as a major factor in measuring performance, a stance that clashed with the Department of Education's central office. De Blasio has long railed against "teaching to the test."
Farina also created several new, small middle schools within District 15, a tactic de Blasio has praised. The district soon became regarded as one of the most innovative and in the city and one of its schools hosted Monday's press conference.
Farina became deputy chancellor under Joel Klein, Bloomberg's first chancellor. She retired in 2006 but supplied informal guidance to de Blasio's mayoral campaign.
Rumors have swirled that she may only serve a year or two in the post; while she did not specifically pledge Monday to serve four years, she said her commitment to the job was "total" and that she was not doing it part-time.
Many parent groups and education advocates praised the pick, which also received high marks from the teachers union, which often had a contentious relationship with Bloomberg.
"Carmen is a real educator," said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers. "She has a deep knowledge of schools and our system, and is on record criticizing Mayor Bloomberg's focus on high stakes testing."
Teachers — as well every other city worker — are currently working under expired contracts. Though brokering those agreements will be among de Blasio's first tasks in office, neither he nor Farina would discuss negotiations Monday.
Several charter school advocates offered more measured approval for the selection.
"I know Carmen well and she is an educator who cares," Eva Moskowitz, chief executive of the Success Academy Charter Schools system, said in a statement. "The question is will she protect and expand public charter school options for families who need and are demanding them?"
De Blasio wants to fund his universal pre-kindergarten program by raising taxes on wealthy New Yorkers, a plan that would need approval by the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They have been noncommittal.