Resignation of D.C. education superintendent stuns school board

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 7:35 PM

In her year-and-a-half on the job, D.C. State Superintendent of Education Kerri L. Briggs was the epitome of the careful, by-the-book government agency appointee. She kept her profile low, her public comments measured and avoided any actions that might draw unwanted attention to herself or the man who appointed her, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Which is why her resignation last week - in the form of a Thursday evening e-mail giving barely 24 hours' notice - stunned members of the D.C. State Board of Education and others who follow District school matters. Even in a post-primary environment where scores of Fenty appointees are likely to be moving on, board members expected at least some advance notice.

"I just don't get it," said Mary Lord, Ward 2 representative on the board. "It is out of character for a dedicated steward of an education organization as big as OSSE [Office of the State Superintendent of Education] to pack her bags in the middle of the night and get out of Dodge."

"I had no idea this was coming," said board chairman Ted Trabue (At Large). "At this level of professionalism, it is uncommon for someone to leave without significant notice."

Briggs said in an e-mail Tuesday that she informed Fenty of her plans in mid-August and offered to stay on until Oct. 1 to ensure a smooth transition. But Fenty, perhaps reluctant to disclose a major resignation before the Sept. 14 primary, kept Briggs's departure under wraps.

Last Friday, shortly after Briggs announced her departure, Fenty appointed OSSE general counsel Beth Colleye as interim superintendent.

"I've met with the interim state superintendent to review the outstanding issues, and I'll continue to be available to assist as needed," Briggs said.

Fenty's office did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment Tuesday.

While much of the heat and light in D.C. education has been taken up by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, Briggs ran a $400 million agency with a significant mission, comparable to that of other state departments of education across the country, including oversight of federal grants, administration of standardized tests and managing aspects of special education.

Briggs was also a player in two initiatives that are expected to trigger far-reaching changes. The District's successful application for a $75 million federal "Race to the Top" grant commits the city to continuing key reforms launched in the Rhee era, including rigorous teacher evaluation and linkage of pay to student performance. The state board's adoption of the Common Core State Standards means that the District will use a set of national guidelines for what students will learn in English and math from kindergarten through high school.

But Briggs, a former assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the Bush administration, was thought to be unhappy in the job. Like her predecessor, Deborah A. Gist, she chafed under the tight controls imposed by Fenty, her superior under D.C.'s unusual governance structure, who wanted Rhee at center stage. Gist resigned last April to become Rhode Island commissioner of education.

"Our educational structure is not going to let the state superintendent be the star," said Trabue. "You look at Maryland and [State Superintendent of Schools] Nancy Grasmick is the star."

Briggs said Tuesday that she was not unhappy in the post. "OSSE has an important role in D.C.'s education system," she said. "I worked on making sure that the agency supported both [D.C. public schools] and a vibrant community of public charter schools. The mayor's office supported us in that role."

Briggs, a native of Midland, Tex., and a high-level Republican in a Democratic town, never seemed comfortable in the spotlight. And the reception she received from D.C. Council members at oversight hearings was often chilly.

She said last year that she was drawn to Washington by President George W. Bush's commitment to education reform as a civil rights issue. Sources said she'll be returning to Texas for her next job. What kind, she's not saying.

"There will be an announcement in coming weeks," she said.

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