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Mayoral hopeful Gray taking a wait-and-see approach to Rhee

If elected mayor, Vincent C. Gray plans to have a little chat with Michelle A. Rhee.
If elected mayor, Vincent C. Gray plans to have a little chat with Michelle A. Rhee. (Mark Gail - Washington Post)

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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010

D.C. Council chairman and newly announced mayoral candidate Vincent C. Gray said he would decide whether to retain Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee only after he is elected and raised "burnout" and her impending marriage to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson as issues he would want to discuss with her.

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Rhee was appointed in 2007 by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who will face Gray in the September primary, and has said she is fully prepared for a commuter marriage with Johnson. The couple is scheduled to wed in September. But Gray, in an interview Wednesday following a community forum organized by critics of Rhee wondered whether she would want to continue.

"She's apparently getting married later this year," Gray said. "Her spouse obviously can't move here. So the question that would be germane to me is, does she want to commute 3,000 miles in order to be with her spouse? People get burned out in these jobs. I was a department director for four years at [the D.C. Department of Human Services], and after four years you burn out. It's good to go do something else at that stage. So that would be all part of the conversation."

Rhee declined to comment.

Gray's remarks represent part of an awkward political straddle that, it appears, he will try to execute as a candidate. His base of support includes segments of the African American community and organized labor that are furious with Rhee for her decisions on school closures and teacher layoffs. In the coming weeks, he will likely work to hold their support in place while trying not to alienate voters in other parts of the city, especially in the predominantly white wards 2 and 3, where Rhee's reform efforts have been popular.

Gray, who supported the school system's conversion to mayoral control and backed Fenty's appointment of Rhee, has clashed with her frequently, especially on what he regards as her lack of transparency with the council on budget and other management issues. He said, however, that he will resist pleas from his supporters to commit to her dismissal.

"There are probably some people who would love me to stand up and say, 'She's going to go as soon as I'm elected.' I'm not going to make a statement like that," he said

He added that he "respected her knowledge" and that their clashes "emanate from the fact that we are both very passionate about our commitment to education reform and education improvement."

Gray did say that if Rhee remained, he would need to see from her a renewed commitment to engaging parents and school communities in her decision making. He said Rhee underestimated the impact of the changes that came with mayoral control and that with the elimination of the D.C. Board of Education, many constituents feel cut off.

"It would have made her life a lot easier, I think, if there had been a real effort to engage the parents and the community," he said.

The council chairman was less nuanced in his comments to the education forum, sponsored by a coalition of community groups opposed to the way Rhee has approached reform -- and featuring her predecessor, former superintendent Clifford B. Janey. He greeted Janey with a hug and praised him as a "first-class professional" and a "first-class human being." He also denounced Rhee's decision to make changes at the academically successful Hardy Middle School in Georgetown, which draws a majority African American student body from across the city to its arts and music programs. Rhee has drawn bitter criticism from some parents for replacing Hardy Principal Patrick Pope and for what they see as her attempt to market the school more aggressively to white families in the neighborhood "feeder" elementary schools.

Gray said Rhee is dismantling a school that should remain a model of educational and social diversity the city. Rhee has said that she is trying to reinforce Hardy's identity as a neighborhood school and that its programs and availability to out-of-boundary students will remain intact.

"It is sickening and disgusting to see what happened at Hardy Middle School," Gray told the audience of about 150 at the John A. Wilson Building. "Here is a school that is working. We have something that shouldn't be dismantled. We have something that should be replicated all across the District of Columbia!" The remarks drew spirited applause.

"I would say, I don't get it," Gray added. "But you get it, and I get it also."

Asked later what he meant, Gray said he was being critical of Rhee's attempt to make Hardy more of a neighborhood school, possibly at the expense of African American children there. Rhee has said that every student enrolled at Hardy is guaranteed a spot next year and that there is ample room for students from beyond the school's attendance boundaries.

Gray scoffed at suggestions that his appearance at an event with Janey, who was dismissed by Fenty hours after the mayor took control of the schools, meant he wanted to restore the District's former school governance system.

"This isn't longing for the past," he said. "I voted for education reform in the city and am going to continue to work as hard as I can to make reform work."


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