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The official government watchdog whose office monitors District agencies for fraud, waste, and mismanagement faces his biggest challenge yet.
Now in the fourth year of his tenure, D.C. Inspector General Daniel W. Lucas is trying to get to the bottom of the graduation and attendance scandal that has damaged the reputation of D.C.’s public schools with successive revelations that the system has promoted students who are not ready for college.
But Lucas’ work is proceeding largely out of public view for legal and investigatory reasons. His review also has a wide-ranging scope, meaning that parents, officials, and education advocates will have to wait weeks, if not months, for results.
The review appears to be the top priority for the Office of the Inspector General, which has recently examined D.C.’s handling of illegal construction, contracts for hotels used as emergency shelters, and mayoral appointees, among other issues. A spokesperson for Lucas said he could not comment on the investigation because it is ongoing, but said OIG is committing substantial resources and the proper time to it.
A Navy veteran who served for 26 years in deployments around the globe, Lucas comes across as a no-nonsense civil servant who has high expectations for himself and his staff, according to public records and those who know him. He held various inspector general positions in the Navy.
In late 2014, then-lame duck Mayor Vince Gray nominated Lucas to his current role. The D.C. Council quickly approved him.
“I always knew that I would have frank and candid discussion[s with him] because Mr. Lucas never tells you what you want to hear, he always tells you what you need to hear,” said Al Pierson, one of Lucas’ naval colleagues, during an October 2014 hearing on Lucas’ nomination. In written testimony, then-Vice Admiral James F. Caldwell Jr. praised Lucas for his “great integrity and ethical conduct.”
This is not the first time Lucas has looked into D.C.’s school system. Early last year, he found that high-ranking District officials had received special school transfers for their children from former public schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Lucas reported that seven people gained favor in 2015. His findings sparked outrage because the transfers went around the competitive lottery process.
The current review goes much deeper than that. It stands to shake public confidence in schools, particularly if it determines, as some D.C. councilmembers and advocates suspect, that administrators papered over severe student absences and academic failures to foster a rosy picture of public education.
During an election year, Lucas’ review also stands to shape residents’ perspectives on incumbents’ stewardship over schools. Yet the extent to which it could cost candidates votes might be limited, due to electoral timing.
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Politicos are wondering whether Lucas’ investigation will come out before the June 19 primary, in which Mayor Muriel Bowser is seeking to be the Democratic nominee for the Nov. 6 general election. If Bowser wins the primary—as she is expected to, given that no serious challenger has submitted the required number of nominating petitions to the DC Board of Elections with the deadline imminent—she will take a major step toward becoming the first District mayor to win a second term since Tony Williams did so in 2002.
If the official results of Lucas’ investigation are damning, Bowser could suffer further damage to her administration’s standing around education. Although the root causes of many of the school scandals that have recently come to light existed before she took mayoral office, the buck now stops with Bowser. In the District, the mayor rather than an elected education board controls the schools.
The administration has taken several hits over the past six months. In November, WAMU and NPR reported that at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast, half of the most recent graduates had missed more than three months of school. The report led to a third-party audit. Released in late January, the audit found that one in three 2017 DC Public Schools graduates did not meet the requirements to receive diplomas. Then, in early March, DCPS revealed that less than half of high school seniors were “on track” to graduate properly by the end of the academic year.
Lucas’ inspection is likely to unearth more-granular data on student attendance and graduation. But it could also confirm or point to various kinds of fraud and mismanagement within the school system, like teachers and administrators changing grades or granting students exemptions from rules to doctor results.
Moreover, it is known that OIG is probing the circumstances surrounding the resignation of former DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who violated a policy he had created himself when he sought a special school transfer for his daughter. Bowser said OIG approached her about the probe several days before Wilson and ex-Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles resigned.
Expectations for OIG’s review are high because pols have cited it as a reason for not pressing Bowser on whether she knew of the transfer for several months, as Wilson has claimed. After initially calling for an “emergency hearing” on the matter, David Grosso, the chair of the Council’s education committee, reversed course and said he would revisit the need for a hearing after OIG’s report.
“The question is where should our focus be,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says of the legislature’s role. “I think our highest priority is turning around what’s going on in the classroom. It’s clear that we’ve got to make some changes.”
Lucas is not the only one investigating D.C. schools. The District’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability is also examining the transfer of Wilson’s daughter between schools. Also, both the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education are analyzing DCPS with a focus on Ballou.
As a point agency for oversight of the District government, though, OIG has a unique mandate to ensure local taxpayer dollars are being used efficiently. Its leaders have six-year terms, which helps protect the office from the influence of mayors and councilmembers, who have four-year terms. Lucas’ term runs until May 2020.
Naturally, checks and balances cause tension—a fact Lucas is well aware of. “It is not lost on me that the job of Inspector General is one where it is nearly impossible to please everyone all of the time and your reputation is under constant attack,” he told councilmembers during the hearing on his nomination. “But I take the approach that character is far more important than reputation.”
He then quoted the late, famed coach of the University of California at Los Angeles basketball team, John Wooden: “Be more concerned with you character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”