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

By Bill Turque
Friday, September 17, 2010; 12:38 PM

Their long-awaited meeting is set for next week. But when Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and mayor-apparent Vincent C. Gray do finally sit down, it is increasingly likely that the discussion will focus on the terms of her disengagement from the D.C. school system rather than how she might stay.

Rhee moved her departure closer to certainty Wednesday night with comments to an A-list audience at the Newseum after the red-carpet premiere of "Waiting for 'Superman,'" the documentary that casts her as a tart-tongued heroine of the national education reform movement. At a panel discussion that followed the film, Rhee portrayed Gray's Democratic primary victory over Mayor Adrian M. Fenty on Tuesday as a catastrophe.

"Yesterday's election results were devastating, devastating," Rhee said. "Not for me, because I'll be fine, and not even for Fenty, because he'll be fine, but devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C."

Gray campaign spokeswoman Traci Hughes said in a statement Thursday that it was "unfortunate that the children have been thrown into the middle of the political fray."

The statement said that Gray, the D.C. Council chairman, "has made it very clear from the very beginning: He will continue education reform. It's his top priority already, and he will put children first."

Rhee was on vacation and did not respond to e-mails seeking comment Thursday.

On Friday, she sent a letter to the opinion pages of The Washington Post in which she said she was not referring to Gray when she used the term "devastating."

"I was describing the perception by some that this election had been a referendum on reform of the D.C. schools itself," Rhee wrote. "If the results were to be read as a repudiation of reform, that indeed would be devastating for D.C. children, for the city and for children throughout the country who are so dependent on successful school reform efforts."

Rhee's Newseum broadside was one of several post-election events affecting the city's political landscape Thursday. While Rhee decried Gray's election, Fenty endorsed it at a D.C. Democratic State Committee "unity" breakfast and pledged his cooperation during the transition. The two are scheduled to sit down next week for their first face-to-face meeting in months.

Attorney General Peter Nickles, the mayor's closest adviser, said he will probably submit his resignation within the next 30 days.

"I am obviously not going to serve under a Gray administration," said Nickles, who often clashed with Gray but sent him a congratulatory e-mail Wednesday morning. He also pledged his assistance.

Some options

There is support on the D.C. Council for Rhee to remain until the end of the school year or beyond, but speculation about possible successors has begun. Former city administrator and D.C. Board of Education president Robert C. Bobb, currently the emergency financial director for the Detroit public schools, was a conspicuous presence at Gray's election night celebration.

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.

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.

At an October 2009 hearing, Gray fumed over her decision to restore a $9 million cut in summer school funding that the council had made a few weeks earlier. The budget shuffle increased the number of teacher layoffs (266) she had just announced, a move that caused a political furor. In Rhee's calculus, summer school was more important.

"We learn today that in your infinite wisdom, you in your unlimited authority, have simply decided you're not going to implement what the council said," Gray said. "You're going to do something else. That is unbelievably cavalier, Chancellor Rhee."

The layoffs were bad enough, but Gray expressed particular concern about Rhee's apparent disregard for the protocols, procedures and personal collaborations that Gray considered essential to smooth functioning within his political world. In this case, the process dictated that Rhee made sure that the council wasn't blindsided by the news.

But Rhee displayed little interest in either process or political niceties as she rushed to implement an ambitious agenda. She told Gray that she wasn't trying to embarrass the council, that she just wanted to protect the interests of children.

"You can choose to believe that or not," Rhee said. "I certainly can," Gray said. "That is my choice. You are absolutely right."

Gray also took umbrage at her attitude toward council oversight. In a 2008 interview with Fast Company magazine, Rhee said council hearings had "this crazy dynamic where every agency head is kowtowing. They sit there and get beat down. I'm not going to sit on public TV and take a beating I don't deserve. I don't take that crap."

Perhaps more than anything, Gray was mystified by what he regarded as her political tin ear, exemplified, in his view by her infamous Time magazine cover.

"I said, 'Michelle, why would you agree to be photographed with a broom on the cover of Time magazine?' " Gray said in a 2009 interview. 'What kind of message do you think that sends?' "

turqueb@washpost.com

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