Mayor Muriel Bowser
Mayor Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser finally took steps to fill one of the most important jobs in her administration. She officially launched the formal search process for the next chancellor of DC Public Schools on June 28.

Amanda Alexander, the former chief of elementary schools, has filled the role on an interim basis since February, when former DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson resigned after it was revealed that he circumvented D.C.’s highly competitive school lottery system and arranged for his daughter to switch schools in the middle of the year.

But even though Wilson’s departure followed a slew of other DCPS scandals, including inflated graduation rates, significant truancy issues, and alleged enrollment fraud at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Bowser held off on looking for his replacement for months. In April, at a breakfast event sponsored by the DC Public Education Fund, she told billionaire moderator David Rubenstein and the audience that she would not begin the search until after the June Democratic primary in which she was running for re-election. 

Bowser lacked a viable challenger and handily won that race with 80 percent of the vote. She further explained her reasoning for the delay in commencing the chancellor search at a press conference last Thursday, saying she did not want politics to get in the way of hiring a capable candidate, as she had noted “months ago.”

“I wanted to go out to recruit when I was better assured that I would be here for four years, but more importantly, that that candidate was assured of that,” Bowser said. “We knew that back in February, when we knew that we were going to make a change, that we would have an interim chancellor, and going out to look for the next one wouldn’t happen until the summer.”

But residents, education advocates, and elected officials say the timing of Bowser’s announcement disadvantages the District because it means a permanent chancellor will likely not be in place until 2019 at the earliest. They also say the four-month delay between when Wilson resigned and the new search process started suggests a lack of urgency to tackle the deep-seated problems plaguing DCPS.

“I thought she should have started earlier,” says At-Large Councilmember and education committee chair David Grosso. “I think we could have had a chancellor by now, a qualified candidate to start in the fall.”

“She didn’t even have an opponent,” he says of Bowser’s election explanation. “For her to think some convoluted thing there [with the timing], I think too many of her decisions are made based on what’s going to get her re-elected.”

By Bowser’s own admission, installing the next chancellor in early 2019 is aspirational. “We will announce the chancellor when we find the right, perfect chancellor,” she said last Thursday. “It would be great, it would be my great hope that by the beginning of the year—2019—we have a chancellor in place. Could it happen before that? It certainly could.”

American University President Sylvia Burwell and former Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis will co-chair an advisory review committee that will help the administration with the process. The committee has 14 members, including four DCPS parents, the president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, the principal of Benjamin Banneker High School, and the president of the DC Public Education Fund, which raises private money for DCPS. (Disclosure: Washington City Paper owner Mark Ein chairs the DC Public Education Fund’s board.) 

In an effort to be transparent, the Bowser administration has created a website and social media pages for the search, including an Instagram profile. But critics like local education blogger Valerie Jablow say the review panel includes an outsized number of members who have ties to charter school interests, and too few DCPS students, teachers, and neighborhood activists.

“This committee does not reflect th[e] breadth of DCPS experience, from a variety of schools and communities and a variety of roles,” says Ward 3 State Board of Education member Ruth Wattenberg. “Taken together, this committee won’t have its hands on too much of the elephant.”

Wattenberg helped organize a community meeting on June 11 to discuss the search for the new chancellor. After the meeting, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh sent Bowser a letter outlining the attendees’ concerns about “the slow pace of the search process” up to that point and reports that “have shaken the trust that parents have in our public schools.” 

The attendees said they wanted the Bowser administration to provide information on nominees’ qualifications, the list of questions for candidates and answers given by the eventual nominee, and other information “that would better allow District residents to assess” that person’s suitability. They also said they wanted a chancellor who has “a history of being responsive to parents and schools” and “the skills and experience to provide multi-cultural outreach” to families. (Bowser had not responded to the letter as of late last week, according to a spokeswoman for Cheh.)

Concerns about identifying a talented DCPS chancellor exist on both sides of the Anacostia River. Markus Batchelor, the SBOE representative for Ward 8, whose schools have some of the worst absence and graduation rates in the city and the most students living in poverty, says families are already “very disappointed and distrustful of our system.”

“At this point, I think we’re seeing something similar to what we’ve seen before, which is a bureaucratic, insular process where folks who are plucked from the halls of influence and favor get to do a check-box engagement process that isn’t going to yield meaningful feedback from the community,” says Batchelor. “Whoever we choose as our next leader and the process by which that leader is chosen is going to dictate how much faith and trust our families have in the system, at a time when that matters most.”

At her press conference, Bowser said the review panel would conduct organizational and community meetings over the summer. She added that while she did not “want to presume before we talk to the community and get advice from the committee” which issues residents felt were most important for the next DCPS chancellor to address, the search process that resulted in Wilson’s hire made clear that residents are “very interested in a seasoned educator” who has experience in teaching, administration, and professional development, and would work to close the achievement gap.

“I want somebody who understands middle and high school very well because I think that we’re seeing the benefits of our investments at the elementary levels, and we need to be focused on what we need to do at middle and high school more intensively,” Bowser said. The names of candidates will be kept confidential and the advisory committee will review the finalist.

The Council then gets to vet the mayor’s nominee through hearings and votes. At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who sits on the education committee, says he is “disappointed” that the District did not conduct “a real assessment about the weaknesses in our foundation before going in search of a chancellor,” but that he will be watching “how the search committee is utilized.”

“People need to feel they’re genuinely engaged and listened to,” says White. “It’s important that we work on the front end to get buy-in from the community. … I say please God, no more platitudes, no more pretending—we have a real challenge on our hands, and failure is not an option.”

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson put things more simply in his statement: “I hope that with this search there is more robust involvement with the community and that when the final selection is made we’re not distracted by complaints over transparency.”