Nominee to lead D.C. education agency gets mixed reviews

November 22, 2013

Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s nominee for state superintendent of education received both praise and pointed criticism at a confirmation hearing Friday before a D.C. Council committee.

Jesus Aguirre has served since October as the District’s acting state superintendent of education, overseeing an agency that funnels millions of federal dollars to schools, runs buses for students with disabilities and crafts policies that affect both traditional public schools and public charter schools.

Now he is seeking to make the role permanent.

Several members of the public testified in support of Aguirre’s confirmation, arguing that he showed himself to be an able administrator as director of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation since 2009.

Aguirre managed — against all odds — to open pools and recreation centers on time, said Mary Terrell, a retired D.C. Superior Court judge.

“Every summer this becomes the battle of the ages, and there were many who said it could not be done,” Terrell said. “But he got it done … and I think he would bring that same can-do attitude to his work at OSSE.”

But Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who oversaw the parks department during Aguirre’s tenure, was far less impressed. “You are the least responsive administrator of all the agencies I’ve had oversight of,” Wells said, criticizing what he said was Aguirre’s lack of innovation and failure to implement needed reforms.

Several council members on the five-member education committee questioned whether Aguirre would be a strong enough leader to do what’s best for the city’s children even when it’s politically inconvenient for the mayor.

“I have no confidence that you will be able to speak independently on education policy other than what you’re given permission to say,” said Wells, suggesting that Aguirre’s nomination was a reward for loyalty to the Gray administration.

Aguirre came to the District in 2007, to serve as a member of then-Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s senior leadership team. He said he is excited to be working in education again and is crafting a plan to reorganize and strengthen the agency he is leading, known as the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Wracked by leadership turnover, OSSE has struggled to find its footing since it was created in 2007.

“On a basic level, OSSE needs focus,” Aguirre said Friday. “We need to evaluate and clarify our role and ensure that all staff and stakeholders understand and accept this role.”

Education Committee Chairman David Catania (I-At Large) asked how the city can be confident in Aguirre’s ability to improve OSSE’s poor record of administering federal grants. Aguirre and his wife founded an Arizona charter school that was closed in part due to its failure to meet federal grant-reporting requirements.

“We just focused on providing positive educational experiences for our children, and we just frankly weren’t great businesspeople at the time,” Aguirre said. “We made a lot of mistakes and we learned a ton from those mistakes.”

Aguirre said the experience taught him that a state-level education agency can’t just focus on accountability; it must also provide support. That drew scrutiny from Council Member David Grosso (I-At Large), who said he worries that Aguirre might not be willing to dole out “tough love” to struggling schools.

Committee members Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) both expressed their support for Aguirre’s nomination.

If the committee votes on Aguirre’s nomination, its recommendation for or against approval would then go to the whole council. If the council takes no action, Aguirre will be automatically confirmed on Feb. 14.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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