Gray taps three outsiders for D.C. schools, employment posts

By Nikita Stewart and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 10:13 PM

Breaking his streak of tapping local talent to join his Cabinet, D.C. Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray unveiled a trio of nationally known professionals Wednesday to help him tackle the city's public education system and high unemployment rate.

Gray's nominations for deputy mayor for education, state superintendent and director of the Department of Employment Services were surprises after a string of reappointments and promotions of his own staff and current members of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration.

De'Shawn A. Wright, a 35-year-old chief policy adviser to Newark Mayor Cory Booker and a founding partner of a charter school fund, will be the new deputy mayor for education. Hosanna Mahaley, who was chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan when he headed Chicago public schools, will be the new state superintendent. Rochelle L. Webb, president of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies and an administrator for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, will head up employment services.

All of the nominees - the subjects of national searches by Gray's transition team - must be approved by the D.C. Council.

The searches went quickly. Wright said in an interview that he was first contacted about a week ago. "This opportunity resonated with me," said Wright, who also worked in the New York City Department of Education and was responsible for opening 35 traditional and charter schools there.

When asked how long he interviewed with Gray, Wright said: "Enough time to realize we are philosophically aligned."

It was widely speculated and reported that Gray (D) would announce the nomination of interim schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to take on the job permanently.

Henderson, considered a more amiable version of predecessor and friend Michelle A. Rhee, is a leading candidate for the job, sources in the transition team said.

But Gray said he would follow the vetting process as outlined in the 2007 law that established mayoral control of public education and created the schools chancellor post.

Gray said the newcomers hailed from jurisdictions that were "similar, if not identical to the District of Columbia" and that he was looking for candidates with "a collaborative spirit."

The incoming mayor, who takes office Jan. 2, had been critical of Fenty's implementation of mayoral control of public education, which he says has been chancellor-centric with a weak deputy mayor and little support for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

In the District, the superintendent functions in some ways as a liaison between city schools and the federal government. The holder of that position oversees testing and accountability programs for all public schools, regular and charter.

The superintendent is responsible for disbursement of federal grants and works with the D.C. State Board of Education on matters such as academic standards.

While the chancellor runs the regular city school system, the superintendent is essentially a supporting player.

The appointments could signal a strengthening of both the deputy mayor and superintendent roles. At a news conference Wednesday at the Reeves Center, Henderson, Wright and Mahaley, joined by Allen Sessoms, president of the University of Columbia, appeared to be a team - a reflection of Gray's plan to expand the city government's involvement in public education from birth through age 24.

Wright and Mahaley also have pro-charter school backgrounds. Public education in the District is in a period of transition, in part because of the fast growth of the charter sector. Independently operated charter schools have almost 30,000 students and account for almost 40 percent of public school students in the city.

During his successful campaign against Fenty (D), Gray pushed the idea of parity for charter schools when it comes to funding and facilities. "We want to be able to bring the traditional public schools and charters closer together," he said.

In Chicago, Mahaley, 42, led Mayor Richard M. Daley's initiative to close low-performing schools and replace them with charter-like schools.

She encountered resistance from the city's teachers union, which viewed the program as an effort to privatize public schools, and from parents concerned about school closures.

But in a 2006 news report, Mahaley drew praise from the head of a charter school organization for her ability to bring together diverse interests.

Mahaley has most recently been an executive director at Wireless Generation, a Brooklyn-based education technology firm recently acquired by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

In Newark about three years ago, Wright was instrumental in establishing the Newark Charter School Fund, an $18 million venture sponsored by Bill and Melinda Gates and the Walton family, among other philanthropists.

The education team will probably work closely with Webb, 57, who said in an interview that she is aware of the problems of the city's Summer Youth Employment Program.

She said she would apply effective methods from Arizona and other jurisdictions to the District. But Webb appears most experienced in administering programs that are federally funded, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

On Tuesday, Gray softened plans to accept a Fenty proposal that would have removed long-term recipients from the city's TANF program to help close a budget gap and shift attention to jobs.

Webb's boss, Neal Young, the Arizona department's director, called her a "very valuable member" of the team and said in a statement that the state is "sorry to lose her."

At the news conference, Gray also announced that he would nominate Gustavo F. Velasquez and Clarence Brown to remain in their positions as director of the Office of Human Rights and executive director of the Office on Aging, respectively.

Staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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