The long, contentious and still unsettled debate over who will oversee the District's school system has emerged as a significant obstacle in attracting a new superintendent.
Rudolph F. Crew, until this week the leading candidate to take over the 64,200-student system, said in an interview that uncertainty over school governance was a "major factor" in his decision to take another job. Two of the three remaining finalists have also raised this as an issue.
Crew, who served as New York City schools chancellor from 1995 to 1999, said the disagreement between Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and the D.C. Council over who will oversee the superintendent is having serious repercussions.
"It's a distraction and a chief impediment to change," Crew said. "Failure to resolve it means any candidate worth their salt is going to look askance."
The challenges of seeking a superintendent while trying to resolve the impasse over school governance were on display this week. On Monday, after days of heavy recruiting on the part of District leaders, Crew accepted the superintendent's job in Miami-Dade County.
The D.C. Council narrowly voted on Tuesday to extend the current school board, which has five elected members and four mayoral appointees, through 2006, after which it would become an all-elected body. Williams said he plans to veto the legislation and press his plan to have the superintendent, who now answers to the school board, report to him.
In the interview, Crew said he also sought more time to talk with Williams to make sure the two of them were compatible. He said that he told local officials he wanted to speak with the mayor Sunday night before making his decision but that Williams, who was in Rome at a conference, did not get back in touch with him.
"I was pretty much committed to go to Miami," Crew said, "but I wanted to have this conversation with the mayor to understand him and have him understand me."
Williams said he tried to call Crew soon after receiving a message but could not get through. He said he had several earlier conversations with Crew, including one in which he told him he would "jump off a building" for him.
District officials are now looking at three remaining candidates: Carl A. Cohn, a former superintendent in Long Beach, Calif.; Stephen C. Jones, superintendent in Syracuse, N.Y.; and Candy Lee, a former airline executive who also ran a company that provides educational materials.
Cohn said yesterday that he probably would not come to the District if the council's current plan prevails because the oversight would change after 2006. He said the same structure needs to remain in place for at least four to six years to allow for stability, attract top staff and let the system follow through with reforms.
"I sent a real clear message about the importance of them nailing down this governance structure," Cohn said of his discussions with D.C. officials. "I think they need to keep working on it."
Jones recently told the Syracuse Post-Standard that the District has "serious issues with governance that I'm not sure anyone would want to address." Jones, who in an interview earlier this month said he was not interested in the D.C. job "at this point," did not return a phone call yesterday.
Lee did not return a phone call yesterday.
An education "collaborative," which includes seven school board and city officials, including Williams, is to recommend one or more superintendent candidates to the board, which will ultimately decide who is hired.
Although no such recommendation was made for Crew, city and school officials said he was emerging as a top choice. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz had been negotiating a contract with Crew last weekend, City Administrator Robert C. Bobb said. Cafritz did not return phone calls yesterday.
Crew, in addition to citing the unresolved issue over who will govern the school system, said the current financial oversight is unworkable. Under that system, the chief financial officer for schools reports to the city's chief financial officer. Crew said the official should instead report to the superintendent.
Williams reiterated his position on school oversight yesterday, saying that allowing the mayor to oversee the superintendent would create a more direct line of accountability and allow him to improve schools. He said that candidates are scared away by the current system and that passage of his plan would ease their concerns.
"I cannot assure someone they're going to have an easy time in this mess. I can't," Williams said.
But Williams's opponents said that the mayor's drive for control of schools -- despite two recent council votes to keep the school board in charge -- is scaring candidates away and that he needs to drop his effort.
"If you have lost two attempts to change the structure of the board, then you have to move on," said school board member William Lockridge (District 4). "This is the number one issue that's going to prevent us from getting a highly qualified superintendent in our district."
City and school officials had said the collaborative would help them attract superintendent candidates while the school oversight issue was resolved. They argued that candidates would see they had support from all city leaders who could eventually oversee them.
But Crew said the collaborative did not resolve the matter. "I wanted some definitive answer," Crew said. "This is the platform off of which we will all be working."