The chairman of the D.C. Council’s education committee on Thursday backed down from his pledge to hold a hearing on former schools chancellor Antwan Wilson’s resignation, relieving pressure that had mounted for days on Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) had issued a statement Monday saying he would call Bowser to testify under oath before his committee. The statement came after The Washington Post reported Wilson’s assertion that Bowser knew for months about his daughter’s improper transfer to a top D.C. high school but forced him to resign only after it became public. Bowser has repeatedly said she was not aware of the transfer.
But on Thursday — after speaking to the mayor and one of her attorneys — Grosso reneged on his plan, saying his committee’s attention would best be devoted to other problems in the school system. It was a stunning about-face for the council member and a boon for Bowser, who is in the midst of a reelection campaign and will now be spared the prospect of a public tribunal on her truthfulness.
Grosso said in an interview that he did not regret his initial announcement of a public hearing but had become convinced over the past three days that it was not the right course.
“I wanted to make sure people knew how seriously I took this,” he said. “After further deliberation, and analyzing where our time is best spent, I felt like I had to change my position. I know that’s unusual. I know that people might call me names and stuff. But I felt like it was the best thing to do.”
The mayor told The Post’s editorial board that she would refuse to testify under oath before Grosso’s committee, saying it would be a “political circus” and that her office is already cooperating with the inspector general.
LaToya Foster, a spokeswoman for Bowser, said nobody in the mayor’s office had pressured Grosso to relent on holding a hearing.
Grosso said that after he called for a public hearing, he received a visit from Mark H. Tuohey, director of the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel, but said Tuohey had not urged him to change course. “He did not say ‘Don’t hold a hearing,’ ” Grosso said. “All we talked about was what was I trying to get at, what was the point.”
Grosso said that he also spoke with the mayor Wednesday night but that she had not pushed him to back down.
Grosso said he still thinks “the truth needs to come out” but is confident that investigations of the circumstances behind the chancellor’s ouster already underway by the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability and inspector general’s office will help illuminate what happened.
For Bowser, however, any potential fallout from those investigations — which could be protracted — is less worrisome and less immediate than the risk of a public hearing before the council.
In addition to the mayor, Grosso had said he would also call Wilson and former deputy mayor for education Jennifer Niles — whom Bowser also forced to resign — to testify under oath.
Wilson has said he would testify. Niles has not indicated whether she would participate. The education committee can vote to issue subpoenas to uncooperative witnesses.
By contrast, D.C. Inspector General Daniel W. Lucas is undertaking a broad review of multiple problems in the public-school system, including inflated graduation rates. The scope and complexity of that probe mean there is no guarantee its results will be known before the Democratic primary in June.
Grosso said the ethics board has told him that its own review should be complete “in the next few weeks.” However, all of that board’s members are mayoral appointees, and the board has recently faced questions about its political independence.
Markus Batchelor, the Ward 8 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education, said he was “disappointed” that the public hearing had been canceled.
“The only way that the public feels that they are getting the answers we deserve is if they are asked and answered in a public forum,” he said.
Denise Krepp, a Hill East resident who has one child in the traditional school system and another in a public charter school, said she thought Grosso’s retreat was the latest example of the council’s failures to properly oversee the city’s public education system.
“It’s a joke,” Krepp said. “Grosso has ceded his oversight authority to the mayor, who clearly doesn’t want to have any.”
Wilson and Niles were forced to resign after the public learned that Wilson’s daughter had skipped a waiting list of more than 600 students to enroll at Woodrow Wilson High, one of the city’s most sought-after campuses. In doing so, she avoided the school lottery other families must enter for seats at desirable schools outside their neighborhoods.
The school system — long held up as a national model for public education reformers — is also facing other scandals, including the revelation that one-third of last year’s high school graduates should not have received diplomas and an investigation that points to widespread enrollment fraud at a top performing-arts school.
Only 42 percent of this year’s high school seniors are on track to graduate, although school officials say they expect that number to rise by year’s end as some students improve their academic performance.
Grosso said that his committee’s time would be better spent on fixing such systemic problems rather than investigating the former chancellor’s case.
“As we move into the next 10 years of school reform, we are adjusting things in a meaningful way so that we can do a better job,” he said.
Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.