Schools Chief Makes Quick Mark
Acting Chancellor Halts Principal Hiring, Holds String of Meetings

By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

Michelle A. Rhee, the acting chancellor of D.C. public schools, has moved quickly to exert control over the system by halting the principal hiring process, because she is concerned about the quality of the candidate pool.

"What I wanted to avoid was a rushed decision to fill a vacancy just for the sake of filling a vacancy," she said during an interview. "I have to know that we have a strong pool of candidates."

Rhee, former executive director of the New Teacher Project, said she will look internally, within the region and nationally for candidates to fill vacancies. "We need to be incredibly aggressive about recruiting the best," she said.

Rhee said she will consider interim principals rather than hiring someone permanently who is not a top candidate. The school system has at least 10 vacancies, including five at high schools.

The selection process was among the topics Rhee discussed with parents invited last week to two "living room chats."

Wendy Sefsaf, a parent at Stoddert Elementary in Northwest Washington, was among those who met Rhee on Tuesday night. "I hope she can come in and get everybody to do their jobs," Sefsaf said.

Those chats were part of a busy week for Rhee, after being named acting chancellor Tuesday. Aides to Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso set up a series of meetings, including a roundtable of high school principals and sessions with teachers at several schools.

During an interview, Rhee said her immediate focus is on identifying back-to-school needs such as the on-time delivery of supplies and making sure there are no problems with teachers being paid on time.

She made it clear that she does not plan to make new policy decisions without understanding what is already underway. "I'm less interested in identifying new things to do, and I'm much more interested in making sure that we are doing the most effective things," Rhee said.

During a week of high-profile activity related to his takeover of the schools, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty identified one set of repair needs: high school athletic fields. At a Friday news conference with Allen Y. Lew, whom Fenty (D) has selected to lead a new department overseeing the system's school modernization program, the mayor announced a $21.5 million project to upgrade fields at six high schools. It will be managed by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

Lew and Rhee must be confirmed by the D.C. Council. In anticipation of Rhee's confirmation hearing, which has not been scheduled, council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) questioned the chancellor selection process. In a letter, Gray asked Fenty to explain what role a review panel, which is mandated by the mayoral school takeover legislation, played in Rhee's nomination. Fenty's general counsel, Peter J. Nickles, wrote that the panel met this month and discussed the chancellorship. He said the panel was not given the résumés of candidates under consideration at the time, as the law requires, because of a pending court challenge over a public referendum on the mayoral school takeover.

Andrea Rosen, a Ward 4 resident, said that she wanted to see improvements in the schools -- her son graduated from Wilson High School in 2006 -- but that she had concerns about the mayor's leadership style.

"There seems to be a pattern that he has for managing the city . . . by sleight of hand," Rosen said. "If he's so confident of his choices for the city, then why not give people the time and space to probe them?"

One meeting Rhee did not have was a session with Clifford B. Janey. Since Fenty told Janey in a midnight phone call Monday that he would not be named chancellor, the former superintendent has disappeared from public view. He has not been back to the school administration building, where his office has been cleaned out. He has retained a Rochester lawyer to resolve the terms of his contract.

Rhee did, however, meet with other school officials and addressed anxious employees in an e-mail last week. She placed Chief Business Operations Officer Abdusalam Omer in charge until she starts full time tomorrow. "Thank you all for your continued patience during this time of transition and I look forward to working with the entire DCPS staff," Rhee wrote.

Rhee said she planned to conduct an assessment of the central administration staff before deciding how many new employees to hire.

Admitting that there are aspects of running a school system that she didn't know about, Rhee pledged to attract top talent to help her analyze the organization's structure. "We will knock down barriers, hold people accountable," she said.

Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company