Mayor Muriel Bowser’s search for a new D.C. Public Schools chancellor was billed as a nationwide endeavor with no specific time schedule, an abiding respect for community engagement, and adherence to the “letter of the law.”
On Tuesday, Bowser fulfilled that pledge—at least in part—by announcing her selection to replace Kaya Henderson as the new DCPS chancellor: Antwan Wilson, superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).
Introducing Wilson at an “emergency” press conference at Eastern High School, Bowser heralded Wilson’s 20-year career as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent in Denver and the superintendent in Oakland, where he increased the graduation rate last year—particularly among African Americans and Latinos—decreased out-of-school discipline, invested in teacher pay and ushered in an era of fiscal stability. The mayor also thanked candidate and Interim Chancellor John Davis for his leadership, and the DCPS Rising Leadership Committee, “for undertaking the most comprehensive engagement process since the start of mayoral control [of DCPS].”
The role of that 17-member committee, a statutory body representing all eight city wards, was to advise the mayor through an elaborate sequence of public forums, online surveys, focus groups, and stakeholder conference calls. But the committee’s actual input into Bowser’s hiring decision was called into question Tuesday as the members gathered just before Bowser’s press conference to introduce Wilson, whose selection was first reported Monday night by NBC-4 reporter Tom Sherwood.
Education stakeholders and community activists expressed concern that Bowser and Deputy Mayor Jennifer Niles trampled on a chancellor selection statute by essentially offering Wilson the job before meeting with the committee.
“The whole thing is a facade of openness, transparency and community engagement, and it’s typical of Muriel Bowser as a council member and as a mayor,” said longtime citizen activist, investigator, and blogger Dorothy Brizill, who grilled the mayor after her formal remarks. “It’s a classic example of her contempt for the citizens, and the highhandedness we saw under Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson.”
“They are going to look to validate a decision that they’ve already made,” said Washington Teachers Union President Elizabeth Davis, well before the day’s activities commenced. “I am extremely disappointed that the Mayor did not follow the law in making her decision,” she said later in a statement. “This is a real disservice to the community. Given this blatant violation of the lawful process, the chancellor designate will begin his work under a cloud of broken promises instead of in an environment of transparency and trust. This is neither good for the new chancellor, the people who will report to him, or the students they all service.”
Elected officials acknowledge problems with perception but speak mostly to what lies ahead. Ward 3 Council Member Mary Cheh says she looks forward to receiving more information in advance of confirmation hearings for Wilson, but she notes that he appears to come from a similar background as Rhee and Henderson, who she says focused too heavily on standardized testing.
“There may be little change,” says Cheh, who was surprised by Wilson’s sudden emergence. “You need buy-in from the community. Ever since we’ve had mayoral control of DCPS, the involvement of the community has been materially reduced. It’s a top-down, we know best, we’ll let you know [mindset]. That’s the operating principle.”
Ward 3 member of the D.C. State Board of Education Ruth Wattenberg—a parent, school activist, and education reformer—tells City Paper she expects Wilson to emphasize reducing the student achievement gap and increasing community involvement, two areas his predecessors did not handle well. Wattenberg says she also is looking for transparency about his initiatives and the data used to measure them, particularly if DCPS is to substantiate its claim of being the fastest improving school district in the country.
“Let’s look at where students are in a meaningful way, let’s look at teacher turnover in low performing schools, let’s stop the numbers spin,” says Wattenberg, referring to the practice of aggregating citywide achievement scores that can be misleading due to gentrification.
Last week, City Paper reported that Bowser’s search debuted as a fast-track decision that morphed into a more deliberate and elaborate process in response to public outcry. A dispute soon surfaced as Niles and Davis clashed over the committee’s access to the names of the candidates and their resumes, as specified in the 2007 D.C. Public Education Reform Amendment Act, and what Davis claimed was a lack of WTU representation on the committee.
The act states that after appointing the committee, the mayor shall “provide the resumes and other pertinent information pertaining to the individuals under consideration, if any, to the [committee]; and convene a meeting … to hear the opinions and recommendations of the [committee]. 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 Teacher’s Union. …”
After weeks of roundtables and community forums, Bowser received a community engagement report on Oct. 24 that included recommendations from the committee regarding qualifications of a new chancellor. A week later, she publicly issued her Chancellor Search Community Engagement Report. According to a Bowser spokesperson, the mayor then began interviewing candidates for the job.
By Nov. 13, Davis was wondering when the committee would get briefed on who was under consideration. “Now that the DCPS Rising Community Engagement Report and the [committee] recommendations have been released to the public and posted on the DCPS Rising website, I would like to know at what point will the [committee] be provided the resumes of all applicants and other information pertinent to the individual candidates under consideration,” she wrote in an email to Niles.
“Thank you for your participation on the DCPS Rising Leadership Committee,” Niles replied. “Now that the Mayor has received the [community engagement report and the committee recommendations], she has begun to interview Chancellor candidates using those two key documents as a resources in this process. I will ask the DCPS Rising Leadership Committee to meet again soon with relatively short notice, so please be ready for that invitation to come.”
That invitation came Monday, when Niles scheduled an “emergency meeting” of the committee for 9 a.m. Tuesday at Eastern High. Meanwhile, Bowser’s public calendar announced a press conference to discuss “Next Steps for Improving Education in Washington, D.C.” at 10:30 that same morning, also at Eastern High. A separate notice said that she would be discussing her investments in education and facilities modernization, as well as increased enrollment, graduation rates, and academic achievement. “At tomorrow’s press conference, Mayor Bowser will discuss how the District plans to build on this growth while working to close the achievement gap,” the mayor’s website said.
Throughout the day on Monday, a list of candidates, some whom reportedly already had been interviewed, began circulating among stakeholders and members of the media—leaked from the central administrative office of DCPS, according to a source who received the list from a DCPS employee. Though there were a number of compelling names on the list, including interim Chancellor John Davis, Wilson’s name was not on it. By 10 p.m. Monday night, all local outlets were following NBC-4 and reporting that Wilson was the mayor’s man to lead DCPS into the future.
City Paper arrived for the 9 a.m. leadership committee meeting Tuesday and was greeted by Niles, who said no formal announcement had been made and that Wilson had not signed a contract yet. Tara Brown, a DCPS parent from Ward 8, said, “As far as I know, a chancellor has not been selected. And I don’t believe anything I hear in the news until I hear it direct from the source.” Maria Tukeva, DCPS principal at Columbia Heights Education Campus, said that she was informed on Saturday of the meeting, and that the agenda said the committee was going to be looking at resumes, but that members were told early on that they would not be recommending individuals.
Several members said they had given significant input in their recommendations about what qualifications they would like to see, and that they were not serving as a “selection committee.”
Nicky Goren, president and CEO of the Meyer Foundation, and a DCPS parent, seemed perplexed. She said she had not heard talk of any resumes. “I don’t know what to expect,” she said. “They told me to come, so I did.” Burroughs Elementary School teacher Hope Harrod said she learned about Wilson from the news reports. “I don’t know what the meeting is about today. It’s hard to know.” Patricia McGuire, committee co-chair president of Trinity Washington College, reiterated the committee’s advisory role and emphasized the mayor’s executive prerogative. “We’ve come together to see what input we can offer and will do what the mayor asks of us.”
Less than two hours later, Bowser publicly announced Wilson’s appointment.
Wattenberg says either the mayor took into account the recommendations of the committee, or she didn’t, but that in any event, “the proof is in the pudding. It’s very difficult to share resumes. I do think it is clear in the law that the WTU is to play a role in advising the mayor, and I hope their input was considered, because you need buy-in,” she says. “But the important thing going forward is to engage stakeholders and make sure the dialogue reflects what happens on the ground. Do the chancellor’s initiatives make sense? Does it look like he wants to engage with the community? It’s important to see that happening because there can be a level of frustration if people feel their voices are not heard. It hurts momentum and gets in the way of implementation.”