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Chancellor Joel Klein leaves the podium after discussing his plans to resign and join the News Corporation.

News that Chancellor Joel Klein will step down has caught his staff — even his most senior advisors — by surprise and sparked debate over whether he was pushed to resign.

Department of Education employees, some of them eight-year veterans with strong personal ties to the chancellor, learned of Klein’s resignation at a press conference this afternoon. And they didn’t meet his replacement, Hearst Magazines chairwoman Cathleen Black, until after the mayor and chancellor addressed reporters.

“I was literally scheduled for a 4 o’clock meeting, walked in, and watched a bunch of people going ‘Oh my God,'” said a DOE official.

Said another: “It’s the best kept secret in the history of the DOE.”

Even Black’s meeting with teachers union president Michael Mulgrew, which Mayor Bloomberg mentioned at the news conference, was an accidental encounter.

Mulgrew said that he ran into Black in mid-October just as he was arriving for a breakfast meeting with the mayor and she was leaving.

“He just introduced her as the woman who runs the Hearst Magazine chain,” Mulgrew said. “That was cute,” he said with sarcasm.

Though Mayor Bloomberg said that he had known that Klein “was ready to move on,” and had publicly searched for a replacement, it seems that most of Klein’s staff did not. A DOE official said that in meetings where the chancellor and his aides discussed the mayor’s third term, whether Klein would still be leading the department was never in doubt.

“As we looked into the third term, this was the trajectory we were on and Joel was going to be able to see it through,” the official said. “So it’s definitely a surprise.”

For those who have become Klein’s acolytes and grown personally attached to him, the change may be especially jarring.

“Joel is incredibly inspiring and has inspired a ton of people to make lots of sacrifices in lots of different ways to follow his mission, follow his lead,” said a DOE official. “When that goes, it’s obviously a blow.”

A former official forecasted a small wave of retirements as the chancellor’s more senior staff consider whether they want to spend three years working for a boss they met this afternoon.

And as the news spread around Tweed Courthouse and City Hall, officials began to debate whether Klein was leaving of his own volition. Though some declared the chancellor’s move to be well-timed, given the city’s financial troubles and his already-established legacy, other suspected he’d been asked to resign.

One reason for the suspicion is that Klein’s resignation has caught everyone by surprise. After the news conference today, the chancellor told a New York Times reporter that he’d talked with the mayor about his decision to leave “three or four months ago,” and Bloomberg had asked him to stay.

Some said that the secrecy was necessary.

“I don’t know what else one would do,” said a current DOE employee. “Once you tell one person everybody knows, and once you start a public process you lose a year.”

Yet the shock of the announcement has fueled disbelief that it had been planned by Klein.

Looking back, several DOE insiders wondered whether the restructuring that followed an intensive internal report on the department’s day-to-day operations, done by Chief Operating Officer Sharon Greenberger, led to Klein’s departure.

“She was the mayor’s political appointee and a trusted comrade of the mayor, and was really there to help the mayor’s office,” said a source with knowledge of the situation.

Some said they saw signs that the mayor had lost faith in the chancellor, with whom he sometimes differed when it came to relations with the teachers union. The possible tension between the two men became pronounced last summer when the mayor held a press conference to triumphantly announce a deal with the union that would end the city’s infamous rubber rooms. The agreement did nothing to make it easier for principals to fire poorly performing teachers and Klein appeared visibly unenthusiastic.

“It is clear there was a lot more distance between the mayor and the chancellor than there used to be,” said a former DOE official.

Officials also questioned Klein’s next move. At the end of this year, he will move to News Corporation, where he will be an executive vice president. Though the chancellor is close with News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch (when New York Magazine asked Murdoch to name the most important New Yorker, he named Klein), current and former employees see the job as an odd choice and far from the national education platform Klein has now.

“I think the fact that he’s going to Rupert has got the fingerprints of Bloomberg making a soft landing,” said a former DOE official.