Muriel Bowser
Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In a letter sent yesterday afternoon to David Grosso, chair of the D.C. Council Committee on Education, the head of the Washington Teacher’s Union is crying foul on the process by which Mayor Muriel Bowser chose the District’s new schools chief Antwan Wilson, whom she introduced at a hastily convened press conference on Nov. 22—less than an hour after she informed a statutory review panel of her selection.

In her letter, WTU President Elizabeth Davis asks the Council to “censure” Bowser for flouting the law and the panel by making a public announcement before the panel reviewed the chancellor selection.

Citing a statutory requirement that the mayor involve WTU representatives and give “great weight” to their recommendations in the review process for such a hire, Davis writes that Bowser “is again treating the stakeholders’ role with disdain” and following “neither the letter nor spirit of the law”—the Public Education Reform Amendment Act (PERAA)—in making the selection.

“The governing legislation, introduced in 2007 by then-Ward 7 Council Member Vincent Gray and passed by a unanimous vote of the Council, states that ‘…(b)(1) Prior to the selection of a nominee for Chancellor, the Mayor shall: (A) Establish a review panel of teachers, including representatives of the Washington Teachers’ Union, parents, and students (“panel”) to aid the Mayor in his or her selection of Chancellor; (B) Provide the resumes and other pertinent information pertaining to the individuals under consideration, if any, to the panel; and (C) Convene a meeting of the panel to hear the opinions and recommendations of the panel. (2) The Mayor shall consider the opinions and recommendations of the panel in making his or her nomination and shall give great weight to any recommendation of the Washington Teachers Union…’” she writes in an email also addressed to the members of the Education Committee and the full Council.

“The mayor did not provide resumes and other pertinent information about candidates being considered to the panel created to give opinions and recommendations about the selection,” Davis continues. “She did not meet with such a group to hear opinions and recommendations about those under consideration for the position as chancellor. Nor did Mayor Bowser give great weight to the recommendations of the Washington Teacher’s Union, as required under PERAA. In fact, she made it impossible for WTU to give any recommendations to her on the ‘individuals under consideration’ because she refused to provide WTU representatives or other members of the advisory panel the resumes of any of the candidates under consideration.”

Grosso says that he plans to look into Davis’ concerns. “I don’t think her arguments are way off base,” he tells City Paper. “I think the challenge here is to see how we can make sure that the mayor has followed all of the requirements according to the D.C. Code. It’s something that I asked the deputy mayor last night on the record, and they believe that they have a good argument for saying that they followed everything that was required of them in the code… I guess the process matters, and that’s important to note, but at the same time we’re going to look into it and see whether or not they actually did follow all of the rules they needed to follow.”

He adds that he has asked his own general counsel to review it and “make sure that that is the case and that we can stand on solid ground here.”

Bowser has publicly touted a commitment to “community engagement.” Jennifer Niles, deputy mayor for education, told City Paper the week before Wilson was named that the mayor’s office would follow not just “the letter of the law” but “go beyond it.” Niles was referring to a series of public forums, surveys, and conference calls that informed recommendations about candidate qualifications, conveyed by the review panel to the mayor.

Asked this week whether the mayor’s office had a legal opinion that offered guidance about the Bowser administration’s handling of the appointment, Shayne Wells, deputy chief of staff for Niles, told City Paper that “the general counsel is finalizing one … to make sure we’re following the law.”

Which causes LL to wonder, isn’t that the type of legal review that precedes an executive decision heralded as the most inclusive in the history of mayoral control of DCPS?

“The process is not over. I think that’s important to note,” Grosso says. “I still have the authority to disapprove or approve this person, and the whole Council can weigh in on that.” 

Beyond that, he says, the mayor’s office believed it was acting within the law. “I know they had done prior analysis because I had talked to the deputy mayor months and months ago about that,” says Grosso, who met briefly with Wilson the day before his appointment was announced. “I think they thought they were in compliance with the law and they didn’t consider they needed to go deeper with the legal analysis until people started challenging that and questioning that.”

But he believes his request for a separate opinion will help to clear up the issue. “Frankly, I don’t give much credence to [the mayor’s office] lawyers,” he says. “I have my own lawyers.”

Stakeholders, citing concern for being frozen out of education discussions, have expressed mild discomfort, but government watchdogs are lambasting the administration for conducting business as usual in a city that has grown tired of autocratic decision-making.

Dorothy Brizill took note from the outset of Bowser’s “community engagement” campaign, dubbed D.C. Rising. Brizill, a watchdog and veteran blogger, says she attended the panel’s first public meeting in August. “It was pretty benign,” says Brizill, who held her ground when the group announced it was going into closed session, prompting a member of the mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel to huddle up with Jennie Niles, the co-chairs of the panel, and another adviser to the mayor to decide what to do about her. “I overheard someone say, ‘Let’s call the police,’” says Brizill, who takes contemporaneous notes during public hearings.

Last week, Brizill found herself sitting next to Beverly Perry, former Pepco lobbyist and top Bowser adviser, at the press conference for Wilson. Perry insisted the mayor’s legal team regarded the panel as “advisory,” Brizill says. “Lawyers have been on this since day one, and that’s why they structured things the way they did,” she tells City Paper

Integral to the rollout was The Washington Post, widely viewed as a house organ for DCPS and former Chancellor Kaya Henderson—and the mayor’s office generally.

The day before the review panel was gathered for an “emergency meeting” to be told about Wilson being appointed, the mayor’s office arranged a meeting between Bowser, Niles, Wilson, at least one Post reporter, and a photographer. That is confirmed both by a Post photo dated Nov. 21 and by Niles’s office. “Yes, that happened,” Wells said.

Brizill for one is not surprised. “The Post has been in lockstep with DCPS since mayoral control of the schools,” she says. “I’m not surprised [the Bowser administration] shopped this to The Post. I’m not surprised at all.”  

Davis bristles at the timing: “They knew ahead of time and gave me no indication,” she says of Post reporters who interviewed her. 

Grosso says he’s not sure how to respond to that complaint. “I think that the mayor has a PR part of this that’s important that she’s trying to get out there to get support behind this person,” he says. “I hear you. I mean, this is the mayor’s choice. They could be mad because maybe they feel like the mayor had already made up her mind before she went in and met with the panel on this. But I think the mayor will argue that she did a whole lot to consider all of their input, that every interview she did considered their input.”

Now that Davis has brought the matter to Grosso as the head of the Education Committee, she is wondering whether he and the D.C. Council are going to stand by the mayor’s handling of the matter. 

Grosso believes this time around actually represents an improvement. “It’s interesting because the precedent that was set in the previous two times that we’ve selected a chancellor—in those cases, there was nothing followed at all in the D.C. Code. Adrian Fenty picked Michelle Rhee and did not tell anyone that he was meeting with her and considering her, and announced her on the steps of the Wilson Building at a press conference at the same time that he was telling the Council and the public,” he says. “And Vincent Gray basically made no announcement and just kept Kaya Henderson on, making her from interim to permanent chancellor basically by sending down the resolution the council. I don’t know if he even ever looked at her resume.”

Henderson’s contract was almost identical to Rhee’s. “The only thing they did was basically white out the names,” Grosso recalls. “It was embarrassing to even read. I was very frustrated. I wasn’t on the Council when they did that, but this process that they’re going through now, I think they have made an effort—a pretty extensive effort—to try to follow the law and to go through the process meaningfully and engaging the public.”

Grosso praised Wilson’s selection on Nov. 23 and posted a Twitter announcement for a series of public “roundtables” to talk about the new chancellor, the first of which was last night. Wilson will appear at the third and final of these public hearings, scheduled for Dec. 8.