Two D.C. Council members oppose Gray’s pick for state superintendent of education

December 31, 2013

Two D.C. Council members are opposing Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s nominee for state superintendent of education, arguing that Gray’s pick — former city parks director Jesús Aguirre — lacks the experience and management skills needed for the job.

Aguirre, who has been acting state superintendent since October, will be confirmed automatically in February unless the council takes action. Council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and David Grosso (I-At Large) have asked the chairman of the Education Committee to hold a vote on Aguirre’s nomination so their opposition can be recorded.

“We do not believe that he is best suited for the role,” they wrote in a Dec. 17 letter to David A. Catania (I-At Large).

“Mr. Aguirre failed to properly manage and provide oversight for the charter school he founded in Arizona. More recently he has shown a lack of management skills and an unwillingness to be responsive to Council requests as head of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation,” they wrote in the letter, first reported by the Washington Informer. “These poor past performances have caused great concern about how he will perform as the new Superintendent.”

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Gray, said the letter is a political stunt that comes amid a heated 2014 mayoral race. Wells is one of four council members running against Gray in the Democratic primary in April.

“This has nothing to do with a qualified individual being nominated. This has everything to do with politics,” said Ribeiro, praising Aguirre’s record at the Department of Parks and Recreation. “Jesús transformed an agency that was in desperate need.”

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) has been wracked by leadership turnover and is widely viewed as being in need of transformation after struggling to find its footing since its inception in 2007.

The agency funnels federal money to schools and has responsibility for a number of citywide education initiatives, including administering standardized tests and providing buses for students with disabilities. While the office has had some notable successes, including winning freedom from court oversight of the bus program, it has also stumbled. In 2013, OSSE came under scrutiny for its method of scoring standardized tests and its handling of a $90,000 no-bid grant awarded to an acquaintance of a senior OSSE official.

“I’m confident in my ability to run this agency, the mayor has confidence in me, and I wouldn’t have taken on this challenge if I wasn’t convinced I’m the right person for it,” Aguirre said.

Aguirre began his career as a teacher in Los Angeles before starting an Arizona charter school in the 1990s with his wife, who also is an educator. The charter school was later closed in part because if its failure to meet federal grant-reporting requirements, a problem Aguirre attributed to focusing too much on academics and too little on business operations.

“We learned a ton, and frankly, I think that is helping my approach to how we’re supporting charter schools here” in the District, he said.

Aguirre came to the District in 2007 as part of the transition team for then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. He was the school system’s director of operations until 2009, when he took over the parks department under then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

A November hearing on Aguirre’s nomination was filled with supporters who said that he proved himself to be an able administrator at the parks department, managing to open swimming pools and recreation centers on time.

But several council members questioned whether Aguirre would be strong enough to do what is best for the city’s children even when it’s politically inconvenient for the mayor. And Wells, who chaired the council committee that oversaw parks during Aguirre’s tenure, accused him of being unresponsive and failing to innovate.

Aguirre objected to Wells’s characterizations of his leadership. “There are some things where he and I didn’t agree,” Aguirre said. “Just because I didn’t do what he wanted me to do doesn’t mean that I’m not responsive.”

Grosso also has said that Aguirre’s poor leadership of the parks department led to an atmosphere of lax security at recreation facilities, including at Wilson Aquatic Center, where young women alleged that they were sexually assaulted in at least two separate incidents. The alleged attackers were employees who used their keys to gain after-hours access, according to parks officials, who said that the incidents revealed that alarm systems have repeatedly been left unarmed at the city’s indoor pools.

Aguirre has denied that the alleged assaults represent systemic failure, calling them an “aberration, not the norm.”

Two other members of the council’s education committee, Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), have expressed strong support for Aguirre. The committee is likely to vote on the nomination at its monthly meeting in late January, according to a spokesman for Catania.

A majority vote by the full council would be required to block Aguirre’s nomination.

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