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A mayor from the past ponders Gray's future

By Courtland Milloy
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 7:39 PM

I chatted over coffee the other day with former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, who is widely credited with transforming the city and setting the stage for ramped-up school reform. Raised a few questions about the future of all that; here's how it went:

Q: As the chief financial officer in 1996, your audit of D.C. public schools revealed a catastrophic system failure. The city became willing to do anything to fix it. So here we are, a decade later: Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee comes in, starts firing teachers and many residents start to balk. What happened?

A: When I became the CFO, I fired about 400 people. People hated me. And yet I went on to become mayor. Twice. Rhee had a similarly powerful position, fired some people and is now on the verge of being run out of town. So what's the difference? I think it's going out and talking to people about what you're doing and why you're doing it. I went to every neighborhood in the city, back and forth, holding small community meetings. If you take time to explain to people what is going on, even if they disagree with you, they will respect you.

Q: Adrian Fenty, who succeeded you as mayor, got elected by doing just that, going to every neighborhood. But he, even more than Rhee, became disconnected from so many black residents that he lost his bid for reelection. Any idea why he started acting like that?

A: I think The Washington Post's four years of adoration and devotion did Adrian a disservice. You guys beat the [daylights] out of me, and it kept me humble. I don't know if you all were on vacation or what, but if I had done some of the things Adrian did, I would have been run out of town. Adrian never had to explain himself. I found that being called out in the newspaper and screamed at during community meetings is a powerful antidote to arrogance and keeps you on your toes.

Q: So going forward, what advice would give the presumptive Mayor-elect Vincent Gray - other than don't expect a free ride like Fenty got?

A: As you know, I supported Fenty . . .

Q: Yeah, but your mother came out for Gray . . .

A: Yeah, but you're not talking to my mother, you're talking to me.

Q: Just giving her a shout-out.

A: Here's the challenge for Vince: In education, there is the long haul - improving graduation rates, test scores, reducing dropout rates. But there is also a short term. We are having a serious problem getting adults ready for jobs. We need job training and community-college training. Let's say Vince kept Michelle to work on the long haul.

Q: Let's not.

A: I like Michelle.

Q: Who else?

A: Robert Bobb, my former city administrator now in charge of school reform in Detroit. Robert is really talented. He knows how to work with communities, and he knows how to deliver the goods.

Q: See, that wasn't hard. Rhee is not the only one, is all I'm saying.

A: Actually I think she is good, and although a lot of people disagree, I would try to sit down and work something out. Keeping Rhee gives Vince the opportunity to promote change throughout the city, helps him get support for even the toughest tasks like job training and employment for ex-offenders.

Q: Yeah, Gray might want to get that in writing.

A: Of course it didn't help for Rhee to say, whether she meant it or not, that Vince's election was "devastating" for the children of the city.

Q: No kidding! So what if Rhee leaves - give me the long view of school reform.

A: I was reading a National Geographic story about people who climb Mount Everest. They can't do it all in a day. So these people called sherpas help set up base camps along the way, supplying the camps and guiding the climbers. In many respects, that's what mayors and school leaders are to education reform: a succession of sherpas setting up base camps for our little climbers, each camp a little higher than the last. I was a sherpa. Adrian and Michelle are sherpas. Vince will take us higher - he may even be the sherpa who plants the flag.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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