The head of D.C. Public Schools appears not to have been wearing his thinking cap when he asked the ex-deputy mayor for education, who resigned on Friday amid the latest scandal to hit the school system, to help his daughter get into a competitive high school that has a significant wait list—all without having to go through the typical lottery process that causes many parents anxiety, and determines where their children will receive an education.
The episode is boggling the minds of those who recall that after starting in his role a year ago, DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson made it one of his first major acts to institute a blanket ban on special school placements requested by both current and former public officials.
It turns out that he has also belied some of his own advice to DCPS parents who worry about their kids’ schooling.
Last fall, Wilson suggested in an interview with City Paper that parents should calm down—but be more proactive, too. “Sometimes I see families obsessing over ‘My kid has to be in this school or that school or they won’t make it.’” he observed. “And what I say to a parent is, ‘You make the difference, you send your child to this DCPS school, you spend time meeting with school leaders and getting involved with the PTA or the local school government council, you and your neighbors come to our parent cabinet meetings together, and your child will be successful.’”
Easy for him to say. As the leader of DCPS, Wilson had direct access to now-resigned Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles, who arranged for Wilson’s eldest daughter to switch from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts to Wilson High School in the middle of the current school year. Apparently, Duke Ellington wasn’t a good fit. Neither it nor Wilson are the Wilson family’s neighborhood school (Dunbar High is), because they live in Ward 5’s Brookland.
Wilson’s tenure immediately follows a separate lottery scandal involving mayoral appointees under former DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson. In response, Wilson last summer established a policy that—in his own words—would “limit any possibility of favoritism or improper use of public office for private gain, or even the appearance of favoritism.” The new policy went further than an executive order Mayor Muriel Bowser promulgated two months earlier that required high-ranking officials and the chancellor to consult with D.C.’s ethics board when considering a “discretionary school placement” for the children of officials.
Otherwise put, Wilson broke his own rules and seems to have gone behind his boss’ back for personal advantage.
Wilson’s daughter has now been withdrawn from Wilson High School, according to the Bowser administration. Property records show that the family bought their six-bedroom, six-bathroom Brookland home for $980,000 last June.
As DCPS chancellor, Wilson made $280,000 in annual base pay as of December—not including a $14,000 signing bonus when he arrived from Oakland, Calif., where he served as public school superintendent, plus a potential 10 percent performance bonus of $28,000. Henderson, Wilson’s immediate predecessor, made about $12,500 more than he does in yearly salary when she stepped down in 2016. DCPS chancellor is one of the most lucrative public positions in the District, falling a little behind City Administrator Rashad Young, who makes $295,000 in base pay. (Along with Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden, Young was a Bowser appointee implicated last year in the school lottery scandal that unfolded under Henderson.)
On Friday, Wilson tendered an apology for his actions, saying in an email to the community that his family “faced a difficult decision” in September. “The process I followed did not align with DCPS policy,” Wilson wrote. “My decision was wrong and I take full responsibility for my mistake. While I understand that many of you will be angered and disappointed by my actions, I’m here today to apologize and ask for your forgiveness.” (Some have criticized this.)
After the news broke, Bowser, who is up for re-election this year, said she still had “confidence in [Wilson’s] vision and leadership”—and had referred both his and Niles’ actions to the District’s ethics board and inspector general.
Beyond Wilson’s self-dealing by jumping ahead of other families on a wait list, his detractors point to the financially strapped situation and his controversial management style at the Oakland Unified School District, where costs for education administration ballooned during Wilson’s two-and-a-half year tenure. Previously, he’d worked in Denver.
DCPS is simultaneously facing a graduation and attendance crisis that’s sparked investigations by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education. A recent audit found that one-third of 2017 diplomas shouldn’t have been awarded.
As of Monday, D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson and five D.C. councilmembers—Robert White, Mary Cheh, Vince Gray, Charles Allen, and Elissa Silverman—have called for Wilson to leave his post, citing residents’ forsaken trust. DCPS and the mayor’s office haven’t answered requests for comment about these calls and Wilson’s fall remarks. (It’s a holiday.)
This post has been updated with Silverman’s call on Monday afternoon for Wilson to resign.