Vincent E. Reed took over five years ago as head of the D.C. public schools in the aftermath of the stormy stewardship of Barbara A. Sizemore and bitter fighting on the board. There had been a decade of turmoil and confrontation, of failed revolutions, of several come-and-go superintendents and sliding student performance.
Reed, a burly former shop teacher and charismatic verteran of the D.C. public schools, put an end to massive payroll mistakes and overspent budget allotments. He joined a national trend to back-to-basics education, and after slowly putting a new curriculum in place, beamed as test scores went up two years in a row, though students in city high schools remained far below national norms.
Reed's announcement last Wednesday that he will retire Dec. 31 because of what he considered antagonism and meddling from members of the school board produced widespread surprise and a loud chorus of praise from parents and city officials.
But some school board members have suggested that Reed, 52, may have "burned out" after five years in a tough job, and, as a politically astute administrator, taken timely advantage of a special early-out retirement provision that will allow him to earn $27,000 a year in annual pension payments in return for his 27 years service.
Sure, Vince Reed was the right person at the right time," said board member Alaire Rieffel (Ward 2), who at times has been one of Reed's stronger supporters. "The question now has to be: 'Has his time passed?"
"The board is generally fouled up," Rieffel continued. "It's a mess. I won't quibble about that. But Vince had some choices. He could have blamed the board for all his problems, and that's what he did. Or he could have risen above it and tried to solve the problems.
"But he's not creative. He's not a problem solver, I go to him with a problem, and he says: 'I can't solve that. The board ties my hands.'"
Board president R. Calvin Lockridge said friction increased between the superintendent and his statutory bosses after the panel "stopped being a rubber-stamping board and became a working board."
Reed strongly rejects the criticism.
"They're trying to play superintendent on the board," he declared, "and I don't just roll over and do everything they say. . . Look, it took a lot for me to get to the point of doing what I did. I've held it back a long time. But I just don't think I can do the job under these circumstances with this kind of board of education."
Reed speaks bitterly of board members who demanded that he hire their friends for jobs, told him to fire certain principals, belittled his assistants, doubted the honesty of information he gave them and, in one case, even wanted him to put up a picture of a board member in the schools.
"They treat the superintendent and the staff like we're nothing," Reed said. "Some kind of degrading thing was always going on and I just became sick of it . . . I always told them, 'If you don't trust me, get rid of me.' They never did that. But now I'm getting out, and I'm telling them, 'Get somebody else you like.'"
In interviews, principals, administrators and school board members generally agreed that Reed had won the respect and admiration of his staff. His personality was charming and commanding. He had risen through the ranks of the school system, and unlike the three superintendents who preceded him was not an outside savior.
During his first two years in office Reed's relations with the school board were pleasant and warm, and the board, reacting to the turmoil of its years with Barbara Sizemore, conducted its meetings calmly.
But as time went on, many of the members who originally supported Reed and kept the meetings quiet left the board. Over the past three years the board sessions became raucous. Reed generally stayed out of the fighting, looking on calmly through gold-rimmed glasses. But since last summer he has become visibly more angry more often, and the confrontations seemed to take their toll.
After Reed's announcement on Thursday, Mayor Marion Barry and hundreds of citizens used phone calls, telegrams and letters to urge him to reconsider. Five board members, including one whom Reed had labeled obstructionist, implored him at a lunch to stay on.
Even though she said Reed was "mediocre" and hadn't done much "except make excuses" for several years, Rieffel suggested that he come back as a consultant in January to help manage the system until the school terms ends in June. It was "irresponsible," Rieffel said, for Reed to "leave in a pique."
"If I'm such a weak administrator, I don't know why she would mention that," Reed said later in an interview. He said he would think over the idea, as well as the board members plea that he withdraw his resignation, but indicated that he was not likely to change his plans.
"I'm getting out of it," he said, "and I want to be left alone. I won't bother them about the school system. I've left that situation. The one thing that bothers me is that I won't be around to try to protect our 100,000 kids from those people [on the school board]. But I'm sick of it. I have a right to retire like anyone else."
Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association, praised Reed highly, but suggested that he might have decided to quit now no matter how good his relations with the board because of the lure of the early-retirement benefits. After Jan. 1, Reed can't get a pension until he turns 55. His current contract as superintendent expires about a year before that.
"Would his decision have been any different if he had a different board?" Shannon asked. "He's 52. He can walk out on Dec. 31 with a substantial pension and move on to something else . . . . There's consulting work. He can take another [superintendent's] position outside of Washington. He might go into the Reagan administration as an assistant secretary or an undersecretary or maybe even as the secretary of education.
"He has a very, very salable set of skills and abilities," Shannon continued. "He's been superintendent five years, and he can look down the road a little: What are his chances of having his contract renewed if he says that's the way the board members are treating him?"
Shannon said the disputes between Reed and his board over what role each should play are part of a nationwide pattern of tensions between school boards and superintendents.
But as school turmoils have generally subsided throughout the country, Shannon said superintendents are suviving longer in their jobs than they did during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
"The lines between administration and policy are fuzzy everywhere," Shannon said. "What's administration to one is policy to another. The problem is endemic."
In Washington, the conflict seems to be intensified because many of the board members spend most of their time on school matters and the board has one of the largest staffs of any school board in the country. Board members' pay more than tripled to $18,725 a year last January.
"With all that staff and all that time, they see themselves like congressmen," one former board staff member remarked. "They like to do investigations and handle constituent complaints. Of course, that cuts in on the superintendent, and he resents it."
Rieffel said she or one of her assistants often call school principals to deal with complaints by parents, instead of channeling them through the superintendent, as Reed has requested.
Passing communications to staff through the superintendent is one key recommendation of a joint statement on board-superintendent relationships issued this year by the school boards association and the American Association of School Administrators, the national group of superintendents. a
But Rieffel said Reed is often slow and unresponsive in dealing with board requests.
"I don't think there's any point in having a board if we're just a rubber stamp and a message service for the superintendent," Rieffel said. "If people have problems, we can't just say, 'We trust the superintendent' and leave it all to him. It's part of my make-up to help people."
Reed and his assistants say that by dealing directly with school employes, board members have upset the normal chain of command and added time-consuming problems for administrators.
Lockridge and Rieffel also complained that Reed moved too slowly in implementing new programs. The board policy to eliminate "social promotions" was adopted in mid-1977, but it was not until last fall that a formal program to actually achieve it was implemented in the schools.
"He had to be pushed," Rieffel remarked.
But Reed said, "You can't just wave a magic wand and make everything happen overnight. What do you do with the kids that don't pass? We had to set up something for them."
Some board members, notably Linda Cropp, Nathaniel Bush, Carol Schwartz and Frank Smith, have worked with Reed smoothly and praise him warmly now.
Three others -- Barbara Simmons, Frank Shaffer-Corona, and Bettie Benjamin -- speak highly of Reed now even though they have been at the center of the board's noisy disputes and have intermittently aimed their ire at Reed and his staff.
Even the other board members who now express open criticism of Reed -- Lockridge, Rieffel, Warren and Eugene Kinlow -- say they were making no moves to oust him as superintendent.
"Vince could be more responsive," Kinlow said. "He could take some more advice. But nobody's perfect. He's still doing a pretty good job."
"It's politically suicidal to be against Vince Reed in this city, Rieffel said. "Actually, he's not incompetent, but sort of mediocre . . . I don't think the man is beyond redemption. He's a good human being. He tries."
Warren added: "If the board really wanted to get rid of the superintendent, we could get the six votes to do it. But if he chooses to retire, I'm not going to beg him to come back. Education isn't going to come to a screeching halt. We'll find somebody else."
Reed, still unrelenting in his feelings about the board, remarked later, "I haven't been here to be a political puppet for the school board. If that's what they want, then they have a golden opportunity to get it now."