Gray 'comfortable' with search for schools chief, despite narrow focus

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 11:24 AM

Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who plans to name a permanent schools chancellor this week, said Monday that he was "comfortable" with a search process that has focused on just one candidate: Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Gray (D) would not confirm a Post report that he is about to name Henderson, 40, who has held the job on an interim basis since former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee resigned in October. But he has left little doubt that he is sold on Rhee's former top deputy. The advisory committee he appointed last month to evaluate candidates in whom he has interest has met just once and discussed only Henderson.

Asked if he owed the city a more thorough search for a schools leader - given the importance of the position and in light of recent disclosures about his administration's vetting and hiring practices - Gray said: "I think what we owe to citizens is to select the person who is best suited to lead the D.C. public schools."

Without mentioning Henderson, who was standing behind him, Gray told reporters at a press briefing at D.C. Prep Edgewood Middle Campus, a public charter school in Northeast, that the best vetting process is watching someone serve in the position.

"Frankly, if we've got someone who has a track record, someone who we know, I think that benefits a vetting process," he said. "Someone who we've seen in operation, someone whose leadership skills have been demonstrated and who has lived in the city for some time. So I'm comfortable with the process we've used."

But there remains some skepticism about the pro-forma nature of the search. While Gray satisfied the letter of the 2007 law requiring establishment of a search committee with a cross section of teachers, parents and community leaders, some said that, given the stakes, the effort lacked rigor.

"If you're going to do the process, do it and do it right. Otherwise, it's window dressing and make-work," said Terry Lynch, a parent at School Without Walls High School and executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. Lynch was a Rhee supporter.

Washington Teachers' Union President Nathan Saunders, a member of the search advisory panel, said over the weekend that Henderson was unacceptable because of her close philosophical ties to Rhee.

The co-chairs of the panel defended its work Monday. "A lengthy search process, in my view, would have been both a distraction and unnecessary," said Michael Lomax, CEO of the United Negro College Fund.

He said he understood that those who crossed swords with Rhee, especially the union, consider Henderson too closely aligned with her predecessor. But he said: "In my view, Kaya is her own person. She is tough, she is committed and absolutely thoughtful. She will do this work very differently than it's been done in the past."

In addition to Saunders, the panel included four teachers, who were named by the city; four parents; two students; and two principals. It met for about five hours on Feb. 24 at the Reeves Center. Co-chair Katherine Bradley, president of the CityBridge Foundation, served as a facilitator for the discussion, which participants said was broken into two basic parts: what residents wanted to see in the next chancellor, and whether Henderson fit those criteria.

"We must have filled up 20 easels of paper," said Daniel Holt, head of the PTA at Brent Elementary in Ward 6. He said panel members were essentially seeking someone "with deft communications skills, the ability to make decisions and to tell people bad news in a way that they are willing to receive it."

Holt said no formal vote was taken but that closing statements made by each member reflected a heavy consensus for Henderson. In the end, he said, he was comfortable with the process.

"I think she's demonstrated in the short time she's been interim chancellor that she listens to the community, stakes out a common-ground position, but also acts boldly to and quickly on matters," Holt said. He cited two decisions: to give River Terrace Elementary, originally scheduled for closure in June, another year to build its enrollment, and her ouster of the New York management firm that operated Dunbar High School after there were complaints that discipline had collapsed there.

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