Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The narrative was irresistible. In January 2015, days after her swearing in, Mayor Muriel Bowser appeared on NBC’s Meet The Press joined by Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson—“The Women Who Run Washington.”

“How fitting for the nation’s capital to have three women in charge, women who have gotten things done in this city for years,” Bowser told moderator Chuck Todd. “We want the whole world to know we are a city on the move.”

Bowser inherited Henderson and Lanier from previous mayors, and MPD was in a state of attrition that persists to this day. DCPS then and now suffers from one of the highest student achievement gaps in the country. Yet the rapidly gentrifying District was not only on the move, it was being led by a triumvirate of formidable women.

Less than two years later, the nearly simultaneous departures of Lanier in September and Henderson in October have left Bowser in search of replacements for the twin pillars of her administration: two popular, long-tenured officials in charge of public education and public safety. While she has not committed to a time schedule for naming replacements, she has indicated that she will make her decisions in succession—chancellor first, chief second.

Bowser’s handling of the matter has left some wanting for answers. “I would say we have to be careful not to collapse both decisions together, but rather tease them out,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. “The process has to be somewhat opaque because we are talking about personnel decisions. But we also have to have substantive discussions about what we are looking for. I think those discussions have been lacking. It’s somewhat of a black hole.” 

This serial approach to selecting new leaders also presents issues related to department continuity and progress. Both departments face significant policy debates and labor negotiations, but neither of the officials in charge have a clear mandate.

Bowser’s new chancellor won’t take over until the 2017-2018 school year. If she hires from within—Interim Chancellor John Davis, chief of schools under Henderson, is not the only internal candidate—she could decide anytime. If she goes outside, the selection could take longer. Cheh is not sure the mayor will go that route. “I have a sense that a status quo approach is being pursued, and I’m not sure everyone would agree on that,” she says. “But that would make the interim chancellor the ideal choice—same as with Kaya.” (Henderson took over for Michelle Rhee, her former boss, in 2010.) 

Deferring the selection of a new police chief places both MPD and Interim Chief Peter Newsham, former assistant chief of investigations and Lanier’s right-hand man, in limbo, according to Fraternal Order of Police officials. “I think there’s a feeling of uncertainty, of baited breath,” says FOP Treasurer Gregory Pemberton, a persistent critic of the former chief. “We don’t know if we’re going to get another Lanier, or someone worse, or if they’re going to go in another direction. There’s a sense of optimism among the members, but empirically, there’s not enough information to say. And if they don’t make a decision until after the chancellor, Newsham could be floating around for eight or nine months.” 

Those are Bowser’s initial dilemmas. Both of her interim leaders are white men. How does she manage demographics, or optics, after she has committed to a serial approach to replacing two women? If she selects Davis, does that disqualify Newsham? 

In terms of process, Bowser has emphasized community input—at least with regard to her schools chancellor search. For police chief, it’s hard to tell what if anything is going on, given her decision to forestall the selection. 

Such looming decisions are the ultimate test of Bowser’s first term, city officials say, and possibly the determining factors in whether she wins a second. “These appointments are the mayoral equivalent of Supreme Court appointments,” At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman says. “Public safety and schools are two of the top issues any mayor faces. These will be key people in her administration who will impact how she will be viewed by the voters.”

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Replacing a schools chancellor is not so easy. Bowser got off to a bumpy start. Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles initially announced that a decision would come in October, with community forums scheduled for September. Given such a short timeframe, rumors swirled that Bowser had already selected a candidate. “People were anxious that we were moving too quickly at first,” Niles tells City Paper. “I probably didn’t do a good job explaining that we wanted to get the information from the community to the mayor as soon as possible as a backdrop for her search.” 

The mayor is required to establish a panel of parents, students, and teachers, including representatives of the Washington Teachers Union, according to a D.C. statute on chancellor appointment. The mayor also is required to provide to that panel résumés of candidates under consideration and to hold a meeting to hear its input. “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,” the statute states. 

This group, the DCPS Rising Leadership Committee, consists of 17 members from all eight city wards with a range of experience and investment. The committee’s statutory role, which is advisory, includes input gathered through a community engagement process that consisted of three public forums, online surveys, focus groups, and stakeholder conference calls. That process is not required by statute, but Niles says the administration intends to comply with the statute and “go beyond it.” Meanwhile, Boyden global executive search firm has been conducting a talent search for candidates. (Boyden also has interviewed stakeholders to gather community input for the committee, Niles says.) 

Washingtonians take community input seriously. “We’ve been fighting to have more involvement,” says Cathy Reilly, a Ward 4 resident and co-founder of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators (S.H.A.P.P.E.). “It’s more important than ever to be strong in our local institutions. It’ll be interesting to see if [the mayor’s] choice reflects the priorities that have been captured in this process.” 

The process has been elaborate. On Aug. 4, the committee met for a discussion with Boyden to go over priorities. Hundreds attended several community forums held between Aug. 30 and Sept. 14. Niles then presented “high-level summaries” to the committee, which began to develop recommendations for the mayor.

There were online surveys, stakeholder calls, student focus groups, worksheets, work tables, and call-ins to Niles and the Mayor’s office of Talent and Appointments; a couple more committee meetings, feedback reports, and on and on. Finally, the committee issued recommendations to the mayor in a 10-page Oct. 24 memo. A week later, Bowser publicly issued her Chancellor Search Community Engagement Report.

Bowser’s report concluded that the new schools chief should focus on reducing the achievement gap, increasing opportunities for all students, growing community engagement, prioritizing teacher retention, and improving school safety and culture. The chancellor should be a visionary who thinks strategically, inspires people, and has management and community relations skills to go along with a deep understanding of D.C. culture and climate, the report stated.

Even optimistic stakeholders noted the lack of revelation or major insight. “It’s easy to think that a lot of process wasn’t necessary if we didn’t learn a big ‘new’ thing,” says one prominent school reform advocate. “But it does knit us together as one city and one team, heading in one direction.” 

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In 2012, Kaya Henderson’s five-point strategic plan, a Capital Commitment, listed “Investing In Struggling Schools” as her second-highest priority. Four years later, after an elaborate community engagement process, Bowser has identified it as her top priority. Niles says the committee report echoes what the mayor is thinking and notes no major city has closed that gap. “It’s like building wealth,” she says. “It’s not a short-term marker.” If anything, the report indicates that “we can’t just dawdle along. We need to double-down.”    

Educators and D.C. residents want to see Bowser and the D.C. Council accept full responsibility for Henderson’s failure to close the achievement gap—and fix it. Some see Bowser’s selection of a chancellor as the most important function of her office. Julian F. “Pete” MacDonald, a former DCPS volunteer tutor and class aide who guided senior academic exchanges between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. for the Fulbright Program, wrote to the Council in October and urged them to work with the mayor or “act independently if necessary” to appoint a chancellor who is committed to effective reform of the problem. “My and my circle’s votes will depend on candidates’ response to this issue,” he wrote. (Interestingly, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds was the only member who replied.)

He then wrote to Bowser and reiterated his message. In an interview with City Paper, MacDonald credits the mayor’s community engagement process for pinpointing what he sees as the city’s major problem, but he worries about the lack of urgency regarding a problem already known to exist. 

Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, offers his theory: “These kinds of processes get decision makers off the hook in a pleasant sounding way,” he says. Hess—an educator, author of numerous books, and a political scientist—says elaborate processes like the ones the Bowser administration has rolled out is part of the reason why education governance is so often dysfunctional. “What if everyone did this for all of their executive decisions, and at the end of the day, half of the participants are annoyed? Most of those who have weighed in will not be accountable for the final choice. Most are not directly affected in a specific manner. It’s a particularly difficult way to do business.”

Hess points to a number of difficulties that come with elaborate and protracted executive decision-making. “A helter skelter process that drags on makes it hard to set clear expectations or assign clear accountability for the choice in a leader,” he says. “With Michelle Rhee, and Kaya Henderson, they always said the mayors took their success personally. When a mayor makes it sound like it’s everyone’s choice, it sounds nice, but a new chancellor will not be able to say with conviction that the mayor has their back. It’s not good for the mayor, the chancellor, or improvement. The public elected the mayor to make these decisions and the Council to approve them. They are the conduit to the public, not some Rube Goldberg-esque mechanism that insulates the mayor and undercuts the chancellor.”

Significantly, the integrity of that mechanism has been called into question. WTU President Elizabeth Davis says the mayor appointed just one union representative to her leadership committee—Davis—whereas the statute specified representatives, plural. “That left a bitter taste in the mouths of WTU members and parents who wanted transparency and input but also to see that the letter of the law is followed,” Davis says. Again, Niles insists she is sticking to the letter of the law. “I am going to follow what the statute says, and that will be one indicator of a successful chancellor search,” she says. 

The WTU has been well-represented at the community meetings organized by Niles’ office and has conducted its own internal task force and teacher-community surveys that yielded more than a half dozen qualifications for a new chancellor, Davis says. But she is upset that the leadership committee has not received copies of the candidate résumés that Bowser is considering and that the mayor has not convened a meeting with the committee to hear its recommendations. On Sunday, she sent an email to Niles requesting that her office comply with the law and disclose those résumés—the second such request in a week. “Although this legislation wasn’t really followed in the selection of Chancellors Rhee or Henderson, the D.C. community remains hopeful that the rule of law will prevail this time around,” Davis wrote in an email distributed to the leadership committee, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and members of the D.C. Council Education Committee, among others. 

“We were pleased when the mayor held off on making her selection in October, but we are hoping to stay on track,” says Davis. “It’s awfully embarrassing that as a member of the committee it’s not possible to answer simple questions such as how many candidates there are, who they are, or whether they are internal or external.” 

All in due time, says Niles, noting that the statute does not specify timeframes. “We do not want the finalists to be known right now,” she says. “But there will be a time when [the committee] will have that confidential information.”

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If the chancellor search is suspended in mid-air, then the search for a new police chief has yet to leave the ground. Interim Chief Peter Newsham has been with MPD for 27 years. He is widely respected and projects a formidable presence. But with MPD facing critical policy, recruitment, and retention challenges—and ongoing labor negotiations with a union it has been at war with for years—he is somewhat hamstrung until given a clear mandate to implement a vision for the department.

MPD’s pressing issues are born of a decade of Lanier policies that Newsham helped implement, enforce, or discontinue—often in conflict with the rank and file. Community policing, vice units, stationary or “fixed posts,” and use of body cameras are all matters that have been part of a broader civic discussion. But just as the Bowser administration has acknowledged a top priority in closing school achievement gaps, it has acknowledged a top priority in addressing attrition rates that have left MPD’s ranks at a historic low.

At a recent hearing before the Council’s Judiciary Committee, chaired by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, the interim chief testified that MPD currently has 3,729 sworn officers and that nearly a third of MPD’s officers that left the force during fiscal years 2015 and 2016 resigned—a recognition that detracts from Lanier’s historical claim that attrition is the result of a “retirement bubble.” FOP Vice Chairman Stephen Bigelow then testified that the union represents just 3,400 sworn officers, detectives, and sergeants, and that a far lesser number are actively engaged in policing the city’s streets.

Dozens of D.C. residents showed up to testify, and the six-hour hearing went into the night. And while they expressed a range of concerns, what stood out was a disclosure by Kevin Donahue, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, that the process for selecting a new chief would happen after the chancellor search. When it came her turn to question Donahue, Silverman sought a more definitive answer. “What is the timeline?” Silverman asked. “If the chancellor search takes awhile, we could have [Newsham] as interim chief for a year. Would it make sense to select another chief?” 

Donahue spoke “generically” about the process. “It’s certainly not going to be a year, but I don’t want to come in and say there’s a specific timeframe,” he said. “We’re not going to be rushed, because we want to have a public process.” Silverman pressed on, noting the chancellor selection process that was well underway. Donahue responded that based on the number of applicants there was no immediate need for a search firm, but that the mayor intended to hold open forums and “reach out to stakeholders.” 

Silverman then turned to Michael Tobin, executive director of the Office of Police Complaints. “Time will tell if that’s followed through, but I can’t emphasize enough that there be adequate public input into the process,” Tobin said. “When?” Silverman asked. “When should the public input occur? Should it occur now?”

To Mary Cheh, MPD is in good hands for the time being. Lanier’s Achilles’ Heel was her ability to relate to the rank and file, Cheh says. “We need a department that’s not at war with itself,” she says. “We need to raise morale. We can’t be successful with disaffected police officers.” Newsham could bridge that gap, she adds, “but there again, I don’t think I’ve heard much discussion of what we’re looking for. I wish I knew more.” 

Pemberton, the FOP treasurer, sees the department in suspense for the foreseeable future. For the members, it’s difficult, he says, two years into the mayor’s term, to be put on hold as critical policy debates and contract negotiations remain unresolved. However Bowser plans to go about selecting a new chief, he can only hope that some historical context be brought to the table. “The engines are revved down,” he says. “[Newsham] doesn’t want to disagree with the mayor, or go the other way of Lanier. He can’t make policy changes until he is blessed and told ‘go forth and do well.’”

Interim Chancellor John Davis could be feeling the same way just now, and with critical reforms at issue for both schools and public safety, the time looks right for Bowser to prove what kind of leader she can be. Waiting on the sidelines, for now, is the D.C. Council.

“The law prescribes a public process for selecting a schools chancellor and it does not prescribe any process when it comes to selecting a police chief,” says Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. “Other than the legal requirements—which exist for selecting a schools chancellor, not for chief of police—the process for coming up with an appointment is entirely the Mayor’s decision and the Council has no role until the nominee is submitted for confirmation.”