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D.C. education agency’s progress questioned

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Nearly a year ago, Mayor Vincent C. Gray hired the former chief of staff of Chicago public schools to clean up an education agency widely regarded as a dysfunctional mess.

D.C. State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley said she is up to the task. “I’m comfortable with chaos,” she said, “and I like turnarounds.”

But questions are emerging about how much Mahaley has accomplished since taking over an office that has a $400 million budget and is meant to play a crucial supporting role in school reform. A top aide to Gray strongly defended Mahaley’s performance but acknowledged that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, known as OSSE, has been plagued by problems since its creation in 2007.

“Let’s face it, things have been bumpy at best,” said De’Shawn Wright, deputy mayor for education. “Hosanna inherited a troubled agency and a daunting challenge. I’m pleased with the important progress that has been made but recognize there is much more work to be done.”

Last month, an agency employee was fired after it was alleged that she had approved as much as $200,000 in fraudulent payments to a transportation company operated by a friend.

The agency planned a series of town hall meetings in connection with a bid to secure a waiver from parts of the federal No Child Left Behind law, but the schedule collapsed because the public received little or no advance notice and dates conflicted with other community events. A Nov. 10 town hall at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Northwest Washington drew one resident. Subsequent meetings were canceled. An agency spokesman said they will be rescheduled for January.

Mahaley has left several senior positions unfilled for much of the year and has missed five out of nine D.C. State Board of Education meetings since taking office Jan. 10, including four of the past five. The elected board advises the superintendent and sets policies on such matters as graduation requirements and teacher certification.

As a mayoral appointee, Mahaley does not report to the board. But her predecessor, Kerri Briggs, made a point of attending the meetings. Briggs missed three of 18 in her tenure.

“I didn’t think my presence was valued or needed,” Mahaley said in an interview last week.

Board members disagreed.

“Where’s Waldo?” asked Mary Lord (Ward 2). “I think Hosanna is great, but she’s been kind of absent.”

Lord and others in the government and the education community also said it is difficult to get basic information from the agency in a timely manner. “You can’t find who’s in charge of anything,” Lord said.

This year, Mahaley has taken week-long trips to Brazil and China for conferences to explore teaching methods. The trips, sponsored by the nonprofit Council of Chief State School Officers, were not made at public expense.

But the mid-September Brazil conference was paid for by a grant from the Pearson Foundation, a philanthropic arm of the giant textbook and educational testing company. The company won an $860,000 contract from the agency in September 2010 — three months before Mahaley’s appointment — to provide alternative standardized tests for students with significant cognitive challenges, according to OSSE officials. A $700,000 option under the contract was renewed for this school year.

Mahaley and a Pearson spokesman said that although company executives joined school officials in Brazil, no agency business was discussed.

“No one pitched me a sale,” Mahaley said. “No one talked to me about a Pearson product.”

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright, whose agency has contracts with Pearson, also was on the trip. Wright has said that she followed all conflict-of-interest laws.

Mahaley, 43, a former math teacher, was chief of staff to Arne Duncan when he ran Chicago’s schools. Duncan, now the U.S. education secretary, recommended Mahaley to Gray in fall 2010. At the time, she was an executive with Wireless Generation, an education company in New York.

As superintendent, Mahaley has an annual salary of $179,000 and oversees about 320 employees. Her agency was created in June 2007 when city schools were placed under mayoral control and the old Board of Education — which controlled budgets and hired and fired school chiefs — was disbanded. Under the reorganization, the superintendent is in charge of programs and policies that touch every corner of public education, including the administration of standardized tests, college tuition assistance and compliance with federal laws. Special education and other longtime areas of weakness were also put into OSSE’s portfolio.

Even supporters of mayoral control concede that the agency has yet to find its footing. Under the 2007 law, it is a kind of second-class entity: a state education agency in a place that is not a state, dealing with a school system led by a chancellor who is the city’s dominant educational figure and an unwieldy collection of public charter schools considered separate school districts in the eyes of the law.

Mahaley does not have a chief of staff, which is unusual for the leader of a big government agency. She said the arrangement enables her to work closely with senior managers.

However, Mahaley has been slow to fill key positions. It was mid-October before she had an assistant superintendent of early childhood education (Annette Bridges, from the Kentucky Department of Education) and almost Thanksgiving before she added a director of data management (Jeff Noel, former assistant director of school quality for the charter group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools). She now has a complete senior staff.

One of OSSE’s biggest challenges is to help the District escape a U.S. Education Department rating as a “high-risk” grant recipient. The rating stems from OSSE’s historically poor management of federal money. Mahaley said the agency is close to losing the high-risk status, having resolved “96 percent” of its financial issues with the Education Department.

Bus service for about 3,600 special education students has been the focus of an eight-year-old class-action lawsuit over on-time performance. Service has improved, but a court-appointed special monitor continues to raise questions about OSSE’s oversight of busing.

The monitor, David Gilmore, said he doesn’t trust the agency’s on-time data because it depends on dispatchers’ logs, which are unreliable. Gilmore also said the system does not have enough spare buses to cover breakdowns. Mahaley said that the District has hired a private contractor to fill any vehicle gaps and that all buses have new Global Positioning System devices that record precise arrival and departure times. She said OSSE will seek to be removed from court oversight in April.

Another major trouble spot is the construction of an education data “warehouse,” envisioned as a portal for “360-degree” information on the progress of students, teachers and schools. It is at least two years behind schedule.

Mahaley was less than sanguine about the data project. Two years after the District fired and then sued the original contractor, Williams, Adley and Co., officials have identified a new vendor but are still working through procurement. Mahaley acknowledged that it might be a long time before the project achieves its goal.

“It’s not going to be everything that everyone wants right away,” she said.

She might well have been speaking for her entire agency.

© The Washington Post Company