Vance Resigns as Chief of D.C. Schools
Uncertainty Over Control of System Among Reasons for Abrupt Announcement
By Justin Blum and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 15, 2003; Page A01
District School Superintendent Paul L. Vance resigned yesterday, saying he did not want to be in charge at a time of uncertainty over the school system's oversight.
His announcement, made at the end of a news conference that had focused on other issues, took his top staff and many school and city officials by surprise. His letter of resignation was delivered to school board members just before the news conference began.
Vance said he planned to leave his post Dec. 31. But after a hastily called closed-door meeting, the board issued a statement saying that it had accepted his resignation effective immediately and that his chief of staff, Elfreda W. Massie, would be the interim superintendent. The statement said a public vote would be held on her appointment Wednesday.
Vance, 72, a former Montgomery County superintendent who came out of retirement to take the D.C. job in July 2000, told reporters that he thought it was time for him to leave. After being pressed for an explanation, he cited several factors, including recent discussions between Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and the D.C. Council about changing the school system's governing structure; the system's financial problems; and a proposal in Congress to provide some D.C. public school students with vouchers for private or religious schools.
"To be very candid with you, I just don't want to be bothered with it," Vance said.
Vance leaves behind a school system of 65,000 students that has gradually been losing enrollment as public charter schools have gained popularity and as parents of school-age children have moved to the suburbs. The city's public schools, like those in many urban areas, have long suffered from low achievement, high dropout rates and decaying buildings.
Reaction to his resignation was mixed. Some education activists praised his efforts to overhaul staff and programs at the lowest-performing schools and said they were concerned that his departure in the middle of the school year would be disruptive. Others said that he had not done enough to improve the system and that it was time to bring in someone with more energy and new ideas.
"He was a good, steady person and has done some very good things . . . but he just couldn't get a handle on the infrastructure. It is so broken," said council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6). "He would bring in new teachers, but they didn't get paid on time, and they were leaving as fast as they came. He was done in by that. It was too deep, too entrenched for him."
Left unclear yesterday was who would choose the next superintendent. The school board has the power to do so. But Williams has started lobbying the council to give him direct control over the school system and allow him to select the superintendent. The current board has five elected members and four members appointed by the mayor.
In recent closed-door meetings, the council has not been able to reach a consensus about how the schools should be governed.
Williams said yesterday that he wanted a role in selecting Vance's successor. Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who has criticized the mayor's efforts to gain more control over the schools, said the board would consult with the mayor and council before choosing a new superintendent.
Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who chairs the panel's education committee, said he would call a meeting Monday to discuss with the school board, the mayor and other council members how to proceed. In announcing his resignation, Vance recommended that Massie become the interim superintendent after he left at the end of the year. Cafritz, however, said the board decided that the "smoothest thing" would be to place Massie in charge right away. She said Vance would serve as "superintendent emeritus" through Dec. 31.
Cafritz said all board members participated in person or by telephone in yesterday's closed-door meeting except for Dwight E. Singleton (District 2).
Massie, whom Vance hired in June from an educational publishing company, previously served as a top official in Baltimore County schools. She was the leading candidate to replace Vance when he retired as Montgomery's superintendent in 1999, but she withdrew after disclosures that she had twice filed for personal bankruptcy.
Cafritz said she was saddened by Vance's departure but excited about finding a new superintendent. "It's an opportunity to build on his legacy and to intensify our efforts at school reform," she said.
Others worried it would be difficult to find a good replacement amid uncertainty over the school system's governing structure.
Board member William Lockridge (District 4) noted that Vance's predecessor, Arlene Ackerman, left her post because of frustration over too many overseers exerting control. He said the current circumstances were "not a stable environment for a superintendent to work under."
"I would have liked to have seen him stay," Lockridge said of Vance. "It's disruptive."
Mary Levy, a longtime school activist with Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, said that Vance arrived with promising ideas but that the system "hasn't moved."
"He fought the good fight," Levy said. "He didn't get anywhere. It's time for him to rest, God bless him."
In recent months, Williams had been increasingly caustic in his comments about D.C. public schools. While campaigning for the voucher plan, he likened the school system to "a slow-moving train wreck." Vance yesterday expressed annoyance about those comments.
Although the mayor had been careful not to criticize Vance, he had indicated that he wanted to bring in a new chief executive to run the schools, and Williams administration officials had said he was considering asking former city administrator John A. Koskinen to assume that role.
Asked about the possibility that Koskinen would be the next schools chief, the mayor said: "I don't want to speculate. I just want to be involved with the school board, and I think Kevin Chavous and the council ought to be involved in working with them to see that we get the very best superintendent."
Yesterday, Williams praised Vance's efforts to "transform" the lowest-performing schools but said improvement did not come fast enough.
Standardized test scores have improved slightly during Vance's tenure, but they remain low, especially at the high school level. Nearly 55 percent of high school students, for instance, tested "below basic" -- the lowest category of scoring -- in reading on the Stanford 9 test this year, and 74 percent tested below basic in math. Vance was hired by the now-defunct D.C. financial control board under a one-year contract that was renewable for up to two years. The D.C. school board kept him on the job without a contract.
Initially, Vance had broad support among school board members who said they appreciated his experience and the stability he brought to the schools. In recent months, however, some board members privately had expressed frustration with his leadership.
Although Vance's top staff members said they were surprised by his announcement, Cafritz said she had been talking with him in recent weeks about his plans to retire.
Vance said he was in discussions about his next job and declined to elaborate except to say he planned to remain in the District.
He said he was especially proud of his efforts to overhaul the lowest-performing schools. He also said he had hired top-quality principals and helped shift the culture of the school system staff from an attitude of low expectations to a more positive outlook.
He noted that he had lasted longer than many recent D.C. superintendents. "It's time," Vance said. "Can you believe I spent three years and six months here? It's not a record, but it's a modern-day record."
Staff writer Craig Timberg contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company