Rhee feeling 'guilt' over Fenty loss

Adrian Fenty, the youngest mayor in four decades of home rule, lost the Democratic mayoral primary to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray.
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 10:14 PM

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said Wednesday that she felt "somewhat bad and guilty" about the defeat of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty but offered little sign that she wanted to work for his apparent successor, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.

While some of Gray's council allies are seeking to delay Rhee's departure, she said that it was "not necessarily the case" that it was in the best interests of D.C. schoolchildren for her to stay in her job through the end of the school year. And she sent an e-mail to central office staff that some recipients believed had a valedictory tone.

"It has been my honor to work as urgently and successfully as we have for DC's students under Mayor Fenty," she wrote. "Without his leadership, we would never have been able to achieve as much as we have for this city. Nothing about yesterday's election lessens the urgency we need to continue to deliver amazing results for our schools. There are 45,000 children depending on our ability to do what we do well every day. I know you won't let them down."

Rhee has led D.C. Public Schools since Fenty hired her in June 2007 as the first school system leader appointed solely by the city's mayor. Her tenure has featured a rise in some measures of student achievement but also has been politically bruising as she closed schools, laid off hundreds of teachers and negotiated a new pact with the Washington Teachers' Union that weakened tenure protections.

For much of the past three years, Gray and Rhee have jousted over a range of school issues, and Rhee campaigned for Fenty, angering some Gray supporters. But the first day of the post-primary period brought a more cautious and conciliatory tone from both sides.

"I have actually placed a call to her. I didn't get her. But I'm sure she's busy today," Gray told reporters at a midday news conference. "She's running the schools at this stage, obviously. But we will talk. I look forward to talking to her very soon. She has a message from me, and I'm absolutely certain, as she always does, she'll get back to me."

Rhee, who complained last year that the chairman was difficult to get on the phone, e-mailed a response.

"I'm very much looking forward to having the conversation and hearing what he thinks," she said. "I will meet with him at his convenience."

In statements during the primary season, Rhee said her hard-charging brand of school reform was not compatible with the more-deliberative Gray.

"I'm very clear on that," she said in July. "I think it's naive to believe that all of a sudden, overnight, just moving from Sept. 14 to Sept. 15 that's going to change."

Asked Wednesday what she hoped to learn about Gray that she didn't already know from three years of working with him, Rhee said: "I'm not going to speculate on that kind of stuff."

As Rhee and Gray begin to confront the issue of her continued service, support was building on the D.C. Council to have Rhee stay at least until the end of the current school year. "There needs to be continuity, and I support some continuity," said Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), winner of the primary race to succeed Gray as chairman.

Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) floated the idea of an "extended transition" that would allow Rhee to serve until June 2012, finishing five years as chancellor. Gray was noncommittal when asked about it Wednesday. "I'm sure I'll get a lot of ideas, and we'll consider those ideas," he said.

Rhee's other comments Wednesday struck notes of regret and guilt about Fenty's defeat. Asked by MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell whether she felt demoralized by apparent voter rejection of the reform initiatives she and Fenty pushed, she said: "I do feel somewhat bad and guilty. This man, Adrian Fenty, is truly the best leader that I've ever worked for."

Rhee added that they hurt their cause by not telling their story as effectively as they should have.

"The fact that we didn't do a good a job as I think we could have in communicating why we were making the decisions that we did that led people to be suspicious of the actions is, I think, unfortunate," she said.

Outside Francis-Stevens Education Campus in Foggy Bottom, a consolidated elementary and middle school created by Rhee's 2008 school closings, Shirley Mims, who has a son in kindergarten, said she was thrilled with his progress but said her impression of Rhee was that "she did a lot of firing."

"I can't see what she really did to make improvements," she said.


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