Robert White isn’t running for mayor—he insists!—but he sure is acting like it.
The at-large councilmember is calling for the D.C. Council to hold a hearing about the circumstances surrounding the resignation of ousted public schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson. Along with former Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles, Wilson stepped down last month after revelations that he skipped the competitive school lottery process to transfer his daughter from one high-performing school to another.
That move angered parents across the District who must put their children on wait-lists if they want to enroll them in desirable schools outside of their neighborhoods. It also violated a policy Wilson himself established last summer that barred current and former public officials from receiving preferential treatment for special school transfers.
The policy was created in response to the disclosure earlier in 2017 that Wilson’s predecessor, Kaya Henderson,had granted special transfers to several high-ranking District officials. This led many residents to believe that the lottery process was tilted in favor of those with political connections—a belief some still have following Wilson’s resignation just one year after he joined D.C. Public Schools.
On Monday afternoon, White issued a statement saying the 13-member legislature should set a public hearing on the matter despite resistance from Mayor Muriel Bowser. Bowser has said she would not testify at such a hearing because it would probably be a “political circus.”
The mayor has faced heightened scrutiny over whether she knew about the transfer of Wilson’s daughter between schools since last Monday. That’s when Wilson broke his silence to say he had informed Bowser of it on two occasions several months ago.
Bowser has denied knowledge of and involvement in the special school placement since Niles’ resignation on Feb. 16. With a slew of education scandals mounting on her watch during an election year, the mayor says she wants to focus on improving DCPS and has appointed an interim chancellor.
But White says the discussion about what Bowser knew when shouldn’t be over so soon. He says the Council should use its oversight powers to “hold agencies and government officials accountable” by conducting public hearings.
“While the Mayor may attempt to assert executive privilege, it is the Council’s role to conduct oversight in a manner that maintains the integrity of public office,” White said in a statement. “Only through accountability will public trust be restored.”
His remarks follow an about-face by one of his colleagues last week. After initially calling for an “emergency hearing” on Wilson’s resignation that would involve sworn testimony, At-Large Councilmember and Education Committee Chair David Grosso spoke with Bowser and met with one of her office’s top lawyers, Mark Tuohey.
Grosso nows says he wants his committee to concentrate on students and the “root causes” of DCPS’ troubles. He says he will revisit the special transfer of Wilson’s daughter after the D.C. Inspector General and the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability finish their respective investigations into the matter.
These could take months. The Democratic primary, where Bowser is seeking nomination for the November general election, is scheduled for June 19. She currently faces no major challengers and the March 21 filing deadline for the primary is a little over a week away.
“After further deliberation, and analyzing where our time is best spent, I felt like I had to change my position,” Grosso told the Washington Post last week. “I know that’s unusual. I know that people might call me names and stuff. But I felt like it was the best thing to do.”
Recentfindings by journalists and independent auditors about inflated graduation and attendance rates at DCPS have harmed the school system’s reputation. They have also sparked ongoing reviews by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education.
White says the Council could invoke its legal powers if needed to unearth more information on Wilson’s resignation, including “by subpoenaing former Chancellor Wilson, former Deputy Mayor Niles, and inviting Mayor Bowser to testify.”
“Residents want a complete story on what happened, and the Council’s oversight authority is the appropriate means to get the truth,” White said in his statement.
Following White’s remarks, a spokesman for Grosso said the councilmember is focused on school reform and an upcoming hearing on it set for Mar. 19. “The councilmember’s made it pretty clear where he stands on this,” the spokesman said. He confirmed that Grosso and White met before White’s office published his comments.
Anu Rangappa, a spokeswoman for Bowser, said White’s renewed call for a hearing isn’t altering the stance of the mayor’s office.
“Our position has not changed: we are supportive of the Inspector General’s review of this issue,” she said in a statement. “And when it comes to DCPS, we’re focused on finishing the school year strong, getting ready for the next school year and making critical investments in the budget that the Mayor will submit next week.”
But White isn’t the only citywide elected official to press for a hearing. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, whose office and transition team White previously worked for, said in a statement on Monday that he supports White’s “effort to ensure transparency on an issue that is crucial to District families.”
A source close to Racine says the attorney general shares White’s commitment to open government and doesn’t want White to be perceived as a “political opportunist” simply looking to pan Bowser—or one-up other councilmembers—to get closer to higher office.
In an interview, White rejects that perception. “I have made it absolutely clear that I am not running for mayor,” he says. “I think it’s important for people to know that so that the motives of what I do to prioritize our kids and families are never mistaken as some convenient effort to run for another office.”
White was the first current councilmember to call for Wilson’s resignation after it was revealed that Wilson had circumvented the school lottery to benefit his daughter. He says he wants answers about the special transfer for his constituents, who feel “a fair amount of unease” about DCPS.
“Leaving any open questions or concerns is going to get in the way of righting the ship for our kids,” says White. “Giving parents a clear understanding of whether the school lottery system is rigged is not political theater, but necessary oversight.”
He adds that he would like for a hearing to happen “in the coming weeks,” and that he and Grosso disagree about the timing of a hearing based on their “best judgement.” “I share Councilmember Grosso’s perspective that we have to be focused on the kids, but it’s hard to be focused on the kids if their parents don’t trust the lottery system,” he says.
The rest of the Council’s education committee says they support a hearing. Ward 6 CouncilmemberCharles Allen, who sits on the five-person body, said in a statement: “I was supportive of a hearing before and I’d support one again.”
On Monday, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds said she believes “there are many questions that the people of DC would like answered,” but did not specify whether she supports holding an open hearing or issuing subpoenas. “The concern that’s before the community is whether or not we are able to put this behind us and continue to make progress in our schools,” she said in a statement.
On Tuesday morning, Bonds added in a tweet that she “agree[s] that there will be no closure without a hearing with all involved including the school principals.”
Trayon White, the Ward 8 councilmember and final member of the committee, reportedly told the Post that Grosso should hold a hearing, but expressed support for Grosso’s decision as chair.
Wilson, the former chancellor, has indicated that he would be willing to testify at a D.C. Council hearing. Niles, the ex-deputy mayor for education, has not publicly commented since her resignation.
Robert White says he does not want a hearing to result in “the delay of legal arguments over separation of powers and executive privilege.” But if a fight between the Council and Bowser over whether she would testify were to occur, it could take weeks to resolve—all while the Inspector General and BEGA also examine Wilson’s child’s school transfer.
At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silvermansays she supports aggressive oversight and transparency, but that it would be in the best interests of the public for each of the parties involved to clarify their accounts so residents could evaluate whom they believe.
“Everybody put their story out there, then let’s move on to the really big challenges that we need to spend a lot of time and energy on,” Silverman says. “Closing the achievement gap, making DCPS’ central office a body of accountability, and preparing our young people for the working world, higher education, and life.”
This post has been updated to include comments from several elected officials.