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D.C. school chief Rhee's next move probably toward the door

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Recording artist John Legend walks the red carpet at the D.C. premiere of the education documentary film, "Waiting for Superman." The film has been criticized for being one-sided by praising charter schools over public schools.

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Other names that have been mentioned include Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former chief executive of the Cleveland school system who works in Detroit as chief academic and accountability auditor; Deborah A. Gist, Rhode Island education commissioner and former D.C. state schools superintendent; and Rhee's predecessor, Newark Superintendent Clifford Janey, who is expected to leave his post next year.

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It is also possible that Gray might opt for an interim schools leader while he pursues a broad national search. Although much of Rhee's senior staff would probably leave with her or follow quickly, Gray is said to have good relations with two of Rhee's deputy chancellors, Kaya Henderson and Richard Nyankori.

Gray, a genteel politician from the old school, has deep roots in the African American middle class that has been the heart of the District's public school teacher corps. That constituency has been traumatized by many of Rhee's reform efforts, which have included hundreds oflayoffs, firings and outspoken comments about the poor quality of D.C. educators.

Rhee, like the mayor who hired her, had passions that veered more toward inputs and outcomes than collaboration and consensus. The record on her watch includes generally improved test scores, an enrollment that has stabilized after decades of decline, a labor contract that gives the District new power over teacher job assignments and an evaluation system that can lead to dismissal for instructors who score poorly.

Awkward beginning

Gray's problems with Rhee began from the minute they first met. That was when Fenty walked Rhee, then a virtually unknown executive for a nonprofit group, into Gray's office shortly before midnight June 11, 2007, and introduced her as his surprise choice for the city's first schools chancellor.

A day later, Gray said he was "gravely concerned that the manner in which Ms. Rhee was selected did not follow the public process that was intended."

That first encounter set a tone that remained consistent over the next three years. Rhee answered only to Fenty, and among agency heads, she was untouchable, someone to whom officials said no at their peril. Gray chafed at the Fenty-Rhee operating style, which he said lacked transparency and a commitment to public participation.

"Frankly, we live in a city that has been oppressed," Gray said after a 2007 list of prospective school closingsappeared in The Washington Post before the council learned about it. "In this city, more than any other, how you do something is a major factor. It is a city that has been dictated to. People are very sensitive to being left out."

Since then, Gray and Rhee have clashed on nearly every major school issue to come before the council, including the budget, projected enrollment and labor relations. Divided by temperament, background, generation (she's 40; he's 67) and theories of how to bring about change, Gray and Rhee were never comfortable with each other, according to those those who know them both.

Associates say that Rhee respects Gray's intellect and thinks that he genuinely wants to improve the schools but that she sees him as a politician who would not support her on difficult decisions and would move too slowly for her aggressive style. She also resented what she regarded as politically inspired meddling in personnel decisions - decisions she considered hers alone - such as teacher layoffs (Gray addressed a rally of terminated teachers in 2009) and the reassignment of Hardy Middle School Principal Patrick Pope.

Increasing friction

The two met privately every four to six weeks early in her tenure, but contact trailed off in recent months. In a brief interview this week, Rhee said she has had no direct communications with Gray over the past two months. Asked to elaborate, Rhee said: "I don't think it's helpful to dissect that at this point."

As their private meetings became less frequent, the friction created by their public encounters was palpable.


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