He has spent two years hounded by unflattering labels: A timid bureaucrat. No guts. The weak-kneed leader who agrees to anything. On it went for D.C. School Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins -- until his job was on the line.
Last Thursday night, in a move that shocked parents and educators, Jenkins dared the D.C. school board to fire him in full view of television cameras and a small band of his supporters. Board members blinked, voting to keep him in office until next June, when his contract expires. They say he won't be rehired.
It has become one of the strangest episodes in years for the city's schools, which now have a lame-duck chief, with hardly any board support, leading an organization riddled with academic crises, apparent money shortages and abundant personnel problems.
So why is Andrew Jenkins smiling?
"I believe we're right on the verge of having monumental reform," he said in an interview. "I'm ready to put aside differences with the board, and my enthusiasm and interest in the job will not wane."
The board's decision Thursday night has left more questions than answers about Jenkins, who has worked in D.C. schools for 30 years. He rejected a $250,000 board offer to quit immediately, when the board could have fired him for nothing. He helped incite protests as the board debated his fate. Then, after the board vote, he left in triumph, without any promise of a future past next June, and without an extra dime.
"The issue never was how much money I could get," said Jenkins, who grew up in Southeast Washington and graduated from the District's Spingarn High School. "When I went into teaching is wasn't about money. What I did with the board was risky, I know. But this is what I truly enjoy doing. This has been my life."
Jenkins said his relations with the board will not be caustic while it searches for his successor. Yet a week ago, he derided board talks about firing him as politically and racially motivated (though eight of 11 board members are black). He has declined to explain those remarks. "I don't want to get into a discussion on that now," Jenkins said. "I see no benefit to it."
Some board members and parent leaders, even those who wanted Jenkins to stay, fear it may now be hard to make progress this year, though Jenkins and the board face issues that will largely define city schools this decade.
New teacher and principal contracts will be signed this fall. Two dozen ideas for revamping how schools work, ideas proposed by a team of civic leaders, are being pursued now. More schools may be closed. Enrollment, at 81,300 students, is declining.
"We may be stuck in limbo," said Delabian Rice-Thurston, head of the advocacy group Parents United. "If the sense among principals and parents is, 'Jenkins is weak, go to the board,' that's not healthy."
The board, which barely agreed to hire Jenkins in 1988, came very close to ousting him Thursday.
Members say key projects, such as giving principals more authority and cutting the school bureaucracy, are stalled. Jenkins helped sink a schools budget increase, they argue, because he hesitated to disclose discrepancies in school enrollment figures. He has hired an ineffective team, some members say, and plays favorites on the board and among principals.
By Thursday afternoon, eight members were ready to remove Jenkins, with or without a financial deal. They scheduled a 4 p.m. public meeting. But they were greeted by a loose-knit group of about 100 parents and school employees demanding that Jenkins stay.
"The board was premature," said Bettie Benjamin, president of the D.C. Congress of PTAs. "Dr. Jenkins has not had the chance to show results."
No D.C. Council member had publicly asked the board to keep Jenkins, nor had the teachers union or any other civic heavyweights. Yet the board changed its mind amid the protests.
Members retreated to a private session for two hours.
"What happened inside there defied all logic," said board member Eugene Kinlow (At Large). "It's a total mystery why people caved in."
In interviews, five board members gave this account of what occurred: School board President Nate Bush (Ward 7) told the board Jenkins had rejected the offer to resign. Kinlow then proposed firing him. Board member R. David Hall (Ward 2) seconded the motion. Then board member R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8), one of Jenkins's only board allies, erupted, shouting that the move was foolish because the board had no one to be interim superintendent.
Board member David H. Eaton (At Large) said that perhaps the board should reconsider. Hall agreed. Before the meeting, both had wanted Jenkins removed. Soon, two other members who privately wanted Jenkins out -- Linda W. Cropp (Ward 4) and Bob Boyd (Ward 6) -- agreed to compromise.
Only four members held their ground and demanded that Jenkins go: Kinlow, Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1), Erika Landberg (Ward 3) and Karen Shook (At Large). When the board went public, only Kinlow voted against keeping him.
"Our schools are in crisis, and the board keeps covering it up," Kinlow said. "If more people understood this, it wouldn't be tolerated."
The board initially wanted to oust Jenkins before November, when five board seats are up for election. Cropp and Kinlow are not running, so there will be at least two new members. Those changes could yet save Jenkins, especially because a national search may prove difficult.
The D.C. board will be competing with other urban school systems -- Atlanta, Boston, St. Louis -- that recently lost or fired a superintendent, and it has less money to offer. Jenkins's annual salary is $86,000.
And Jenkins apparently has not ruled out seeking another term. "I've made no decision about my future," he said. "How well we progress this year will determine what I want to do."