Gray tries to allay concerns on schools

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

They are men of the same age, and they share the last name. But until they met for the first time earlier this month, that was about all C. Boyden Gray and Vincent C. Gray, both 67, had in common.

But on a Sunday evening at his Georgetown home, the patrician Republican and former White House counsel introduced the Democrat and presumptive mayor-elect from Ward 7 as "my cousin Vinny" to a gathering of education philanthropists and reform advocates over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.

It was a light moment in the midst of a serious outreach effort engineered by the Gray campaign.

The objective was to reassure the influential network of private foundations - which have poured an estimated $20 million into D.C public schools over the past four years - that Vincent C. Gray is serious about sustaining the reforms launched by outgoing Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. With the city facing a budget shortfall that could reach $400 million by 2012, he has a major stake in convincing private donors that the District remains an important investment.

Gray's efforts so far have won him the benefit of the doubt from donors leery of his campaign's heavy support from teachers unions and other interests opposed to Rhee. Gray allayed some of the concerns with his decision to ask Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to name Rhee's deputy, Kaya Henderson, as interim chancellor, a decision several donors urged Gray to make.

"My sense is that people are going to give him time to demonstrate that he is going to maintain the momentum and direction," said Michael Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, who attended the meeting at C. Boyden Gray's home.

Rhee was a rock star in the philanthropic sector, with people excited by her willingness to challenge the influence of teachers' unions and link teacher pay to the academic progress of students. A group of national philanthropists, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, pledged $64.5 million over the next several years to underwrite salary increases and performance-pay provisions in the hard-fought contract Rhee signed with the Washington Teachers' Union last spring. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested an unspecified amount in an online professional development platform for teachers, customized to their individual needs.

Washington-based Fight for Children, founded by philanthropist Joseph E. Robert Jr., contributed to the $4 million start-up costs for IMPACT, an evaluation system that uses standardized test scores as part of its assessment for some teachers and can trigger dismissals for those with low scores.

But Gray's defeat of Fenty in last month's Democratic primary sent tremors through the donor community because of his union support and his clashes with Rhee over her headstrong leadership style that he thought excluded important community voices.

When Rhee declared a day after the election that Fenty's defeat was "devastating" for the city, making her resignation a near-certainty, there were "people who had the impression that the sky was falling," said Joshua Kern, executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy, a public charter high school in Ward 8, and a key education adviser to Gray.

Reaching out to funders

Last spring's controversy over financing of the teachers' contract showed that private money does not come to public coffers without strings.

Under terms of the grants financing the contract, the foundations have the right to reconsider their commitments if there is a change in the school system leadership that materially changes the direction of reform efforts.

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