Members of a search committee that has been working for months to find a D.C. schools superintendent have been summoned to a meeting this afternoon to interview Maurice A. Jones, the 39-year-old lawyer who has quickly become a leading candidate for the job.
Parent and union representatives on the search committee said yesterday that Jones's candidacy completely surprised them. The 17-member committee interviewed seven other people last month and agreed on four finalists, all of them seasoned educators.
A seven-member panel of top city and school officials, who are also on the search committee, was supposed to evaluate the finalists and make a recommendation to the Board of Education. But the panel met Monday with Jones, a former Rhodes scholar who has headed the Virginia Department of Social Services since 2002 and has no education experience. His name had not previously been discussed by the search committee.
Committee members, Darlene T. Allen and Bernard C. Lucas Sr. said they were stunned to learn about Jones's candidacy in a news story yesterday and that they felt the committee had been shut out of the process.
"It appears that we wasted our collective time and energy because the process appears to have been a sham, a farce," Allen, president of the citywide organization of parent-teacher associations, wrote yesterday in an e-mail that was circulated widely among school activists.
She added: "The school board needs to be able to choose the best candidate for the job without coercion or foul play. The selection committee process was where parents, teachers and the community provided their say in what was wanted and needed in the next superintendent. . . . It is glaringly clear that what we had to say was not important."
Lucas, president of the local principals' union, said he, too, was dismayed about not being informed.
"I have nothing against Mr. Jones; his credentials are impeccable," Lucas said. "However, he did not go through the established process. This negates everything else the search committee had done."
Lucas said he felt the time and energy the committee put into two marathon rounds of interviews last month had been for naught. "There is an air of arrogance about the way this process has been conducted," he said. "I personally take it as an insult to my intelligence."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who chairs the seven-member panel, said through a spokesman that he believed it was not appropriate to discuss individual candidates.
Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who also serves on the panel, declined to say who suggested Jones as a candidate or to explain why the panel interviewed him without telling the search committee.
"This has been an extremely difficult process," she said. "There is no way that everybody is going to be pleased, but our goal has got to be the strongest superintendent that we can get, and that has to transcend every other consideration."
Cafritz said that one finalist from last month's interviews, Toledo Superintendent Eugene T.W. Sanders, is still a leading candidate. "He is still being actively considered," she said.
The search for a replacement for Paul L. Vance, who resigned in November, has dragged on for months.
In addition to Williams and Cafritz, the panel charged with recommending a candidate to the school board consists of City Administrator Robert C. Bobb, mayoral school board appointees Robin B. Martin and Mirian Saez, D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), and council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7).
Known as the "education advisory collaborative," the panel was created under a May 7 agreement that was intended to create a consensus around education policy. The panel was supposed to "strengthen and ensure the independence of the superintendent" and buffer the superintendent from political interference, in addition to helping with selection.
Instead, the panel was itself under attack yesterday for playing politics.
Cafritz insisted that although Jones had not been considered a candidate until this week, "this is not an aberration at all."
She said Jones was interviewed based on an outside recommendation but would not identify who made the recommendation. "When the candidate was recommended, we thought that the chance at the highest quality should be taken," she said. "It's worthy of being explored, and that's why he's being brought before the search committee tomorrow and going through the same process everyone else went through."
That argument did not seem to be persuasive yesterday to others involved in the selection process.
Carolyn N. Graham, a mayoral appointee to the Board of Education, said she was dismayed that the panel would interview a new candidate without first consulting the rest of the search committee.
"As a board, I think that we're all concerned," Graham said. "The concern is that it hasn't gone through the agreed-upon process that was established."
As for Jones, Graham said she didn't know anything about him.