By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007
Victor A. Reinoso, the man tapped by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to head his high-stakes takeover of the failing D.C. public school system, is a reluctant warrior.
Late last fall, when Fenty (D) asked him to take the post of deputy mayor for education, Reinoso turned it down more than once, citing concerns that the job would limit his time with his wife and two young children.
Reinoso, 38, a former Board of Education member, ultimately gave in to the mayor's hard sell. But his ascent to one of the city's top education jobs has been met with a mixed reaction from public school employees and parents. Some ask whether his résumé qualifies him for such a vital position, whether he has the requisite management experience and education expertise.
"To succeed, you have to feel the pressure," Reinoso said of his effort to manage the 55,000-student school system.
He is at work on a long to-do list to ensure that schools open smoothly in August. He is expected to be the ultimate authority for areas of pressing need, including hiring teachers, repairing facilities, ordering textbooks, lining up student immunizations, visiting schools, hiring an ombudsman, raising money from private donors and organizing town hall meetings.
Assuming Congress ratifies the mayoral takeover plan the D.C. Council approved last month, Reinoso also will participate in a management review that will help determine whether the administration keeps Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.
"We want to raise the bar, and people expect to have a different experience, a better one relative to what they had with the school system" in charge, Reinoso said. "We feel pressure to deliver that, and we have a long way to go."
Reinoso had recently been promoted to chief operating officer at the Federal City Council, a nonprofit organization of Washington business leaders, when he left to join the Fenty administration in January.
Reinoso, who grew up in Oklahoma with parents who had emigrated from Peru, holds a bachelor's degree in international relations from Georgetown University and a master's of business administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked for years in telecommunications consulting and started a short-lived Internet venture to provide Spanish-language broadcasting to the Latino community before joining the Federal City Council in 2003.
Iris Toyer, head of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, said she doubts Reinoso's ability to manage because he has never been in charge of a large number of people.
"I need to know that the person . . . put over these agencies has a real understanding and experience of running something," she said.
Save Our Schools, an activist group that opposed the takeover, complained about Reinoso's ties to the business community and said that Reinoso lacks creativity. The group cited a WAMU (88.5 FM) radio report last week that he and the Fenty administration had taken portions of their education strategy from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system.
Reinoso and other city officials responded that they incorporated "best practices" from several different school systems while developing their plan.
Friends and former school board colleagues dismiss such complaints, describing Reinoso as a determined champion for improving the city's woefully underperforming schools.
At the Federal City Council, Reinoso spent three years as the director of education projects, working to coordinate efforts of business leaders to help the school system. He focused heavily on special education and worked with charter schools.
After joining the school board in 2004, Reinoso was one of Janey's fiercest critics, authoring a 13-page critique of the superintendent's facilities improvement plan that forced Janey to revise it. Reinoso also led a successful effort to block Janey's attempt last year to lessen the number of school days for students in order to add more teacher training.
"He was pretty aggressive toward the superintendent," said Jeff Smith, who recently quit the school board to protest Fenty's takeover and now heads D.C. Voice, an education advocacy organization. "There was an element of the city that believed Dr. Janey was not moving fast enough. . . . Most of Victor's aggressiveness was to bring those concerns back to the superintendent and hold his feet to the fire."
John White, a spokesman for Janey, said the superintendent did not want to comment for this story.
Janey believes "it's not so much how one responds to a critic but whether you are able to move forward on behalf of children in the school district," White said. "That's what he's been able to do."
To Fenty, Reinoso's position on Janey dovetailed with his own. The two had grown to admire each other during Reinoso's school board campaign, when Fenty, then a council member from Ward 4, gave him a critical endorsement.
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) served on the school board with Reinoso and recalled several private meetings during which board members argued over how they should deal with Janey in public. Some of the board, including Wells, thought they should support him to help instill public confidence in the system.
"Victor was pushing on the other side to be more critical," Wells said. Recalling Reinoso's fight on the facilities plan and the school calendar, Wells added: "On things that were pretty complex, he would go toe-to-toe with the superintendent. I could fight windows at a school, but Victor would go into areas of academic administration."
Still, when Fenty asked Reinoso to join him last November, Reinoso wasn't eager to leave the Federal City Council.
John Hill, chief executive of the Federal City Council, recalled meeting with an uncertain Reinoso, whom Hill had come to view as a possible successor. Hill said he told Reinoso that the deputy mayor's job would be ultra-political.
"I also told him he had to think about where he could help the kids the most," Hill said.
While Fenty has taken the lead on the political front and is pushing Congress to approve the takeover this summer, Reinoso has worked behind the scenes with a staff of 11 aides.
The staff is made up of a chief of staff, an executive assistant, five special assistants, three policy analysts and a director of parent outreach. Several worked previously for the school board and came to the administration with Reinoso.
Reinoso's team is coordinating with other city agencies to ensure schools get necessary support, such as immunizations from the health department, searching for an ombudsman to investigate complaints from parents and meeting with school system officials to discuss the transition.
There is still the potential for overlapping with the school board, which will maintain authority until Congress acts. Board President Robert C. Bobb has sent a letter to Fenty asking to establish a formal transition structure, which the mayor has agreed to do.
Not everything is going as planned. Popping into an elementary school on Capitol Hill for a tour last week, Reinoso was limited to talking to the guidance counselor because the students were taking standardized tests. On his way out, he was stopped by a security guard who pleaded with him to fix the school's high-tech security system, which had been on the blink for months.
Reinoso noted the woman's concern and promised to follow up. It was one more chore on a list that is growing longer by the day.