Mayor Muriel Bowser (file)
Mayor Muriel Bowser (file) Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Even though she has fiercely opposed various pieces of legislation by D.C. lawmakers over the past three-and-a-half years, Mayor Muriel Bowser has waited until now to formally veto a bill.

On Thursday, Bowser flexed her executive powers over D.C. Public Schools by tendering her inaugural veto, which effectively negates an emergency bill the D.C. Council passed 12-1 in June. That bill was meant to prevent DCPS from relying on unexcused student absences last school year as “the sole reason” not to graduate or promote students.

At-Large Councilmembers Robert White and David Grosso, who chairs the Council’s education committee, had introduced the measure as a work-around for what they said was DCPS’ unfair enforcement of graduation requirements in the middle of the 2017-2018 school year. After critical reports and audits showed that schools had flouted attendance policies to boost their graduation rates, DCPS acknowledged in March and April that under half of its high school seniors were “on track” to graduate.

All councilmembers except Ward 4’s Brandon Todd, a close ally and successor of Bowser’s, voted for the bill. But the administration said the Council’s legislation “would inexcusably exempt absences, signaling to students that mastery of content and preparation for the future are not what are most important.”

Bowser echoed that argument in her veto letter on Thursday. “This legislation sends an inconsistent message to the District’s students,” she wrote. “The [Interim DCPS] Chancellor [Amanda Alexander] has worked diligently over the past several months to ensure that our students are attending school, per the District’s long-standing laws and policies.”

“We must support the education professionals who have neither requested nor desire this legislation,” Bowser added, noting that DCPS had “invested substantial time and resources to ensure that all students who are off track” could advance with “individualized graduation plans.” According to DCPS, approximately 60 percent of seniors graduated on time this past school year, down from 73 percent in the 2016-2017 school year.

Normally, a two-thirds vote by the Council is enough to override a mayoral veto. But because the Council begins its annual summer recess on July 15, the bill appears moot. This recess lasts until Sept. 15, by which point schools would have already determined whether remedial students had earned graduation or advancement. (Theoretically, a simple majority of councilmembers could call a special session over the summer to quash Bowser’s veto, but such a move is rare, and even those who voted for the bill expressed reservations about it.)

As she heads into an almost-assured second term, the veto marks a break from Bowser’s usual MO when she disfavors Council bills. In the past, she has returned legislation to the Council unsigned—like a majority-approved paid leave bill—as a token of her disapproval, but has not vetoed it.

In a statement on Thursday evening, White, the at-large councilmember, said he was “looking at all options,” but acknowledged that given the Council’s imminent summer recess, “it will be difficult to override the veto.” “As a result of the Mayor’s veto, students who demonstrated academic mastery and followed their schools’ guidance will be held back, leading to more disengaged youth,” he said.

The veto comes as Bowser looks for a permanent DCPS chancellor after Antwan Wilson resigned from the role in February amid scandal. Bowser has said her “great hope” is to have a new chancellor in place by the start of 2019.