Going head-to-head again

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee left most of the speaking at Thursday's news conference to the presumptive mayor-elect, Vincent Gray.
Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee left most of the speaking at Thursday's news conference to the presumptive mayor-elect, Vincent Gray. (Marvin Joseph)

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By Bill Turque and Tim Craig Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 24, 2010

Presumptive Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray held a long-awaited summit with Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee on Thursday but said that his 90 minutes with the outspoken schools leader, who actively campaigned against him in a rancorous Democratic primary, hewed strictly to education issues and did not address her future in the job.

"We did not talk about Chancellor Rhee staying or going. We talked about the state of education in the city," Gray, the D.C. Council chairman, said upon emerging from his Wilson Building office with Rhee to speak to a throng of reporters.

Gray said the two will likely meet again within the next couple of weeks, a message reinforced by Gray advisers, who emphasized that the meeting was never intended to resolve the issue of Rhee's tenure. Gray won the Democratic primary Sept. 14 but still faces, at least nominally, a general election vote Nov. 2.

"This was always supposed to be just a first meeting to discuss where school reform goes from here," said Mo Elleithee, a senior Gray campaign strategist. "But he's been pretty clear: On his end, he's not making any decisions until after the election."

In a brief discussion with reporters after Rhee left the news conference, Gray said he hasn't even begun thinking of possible candidates for chancellor.

"Right now, the discussions are between Ms. Rhee and myself," Gray said.

Perhaps most striking was how the news conference's two principal players carried themselves as they stepped in front of the cameras. While Gray, apparently relaxed, strode directly to the bank of microphones, Rhee looked grim and subdued as she withdrew to a far corner, deferring virtually all comment to Gray.

As Gray continued to speak, she slipped back into the corridor fronting his fifth-floor office and rushed to the elevators. She was pursued by reporters but would not answer questions.

It was a dramatic contrast to the chancellor's last public appearance. Sitting on a panel at the Newseum on Sept. 15, she said that Gray's victory over Mayor Adrian M. Fenty was "devastating" for the city's schoolchildren and exhorted an audience of Washington A-listers and education reformers to use the election outcome "to lean forward and be more aggressive and more adamant" about pursuing fundamental change.

She later said that she was not being critical of Gray but expressing concern that the election results might be seen as a blow against reform.

In a phone interview Thursday evening, Rhee declined to discuss the meeting or her reaction. She also declined to comment on whether she was prepared to remain until the end of Fenty's term of office in January or whether she had been approached about other jobs.

She did say there was no substance to speculation that surfaced in a Thursday New York Times article that she was a possible replacement for Newark Schools Superintendent Clifford Janey - the man she replaced three years ago in the District.


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