The fallout from findings that a former schools chancellor misused her authority to place children of top D.C. officials in coveted schools seemed clear. From city hall, where council members were inundated with calls last week, to neighborhood email groups, where parents fumed, there was outrage that well-connected people had stepped ahead of everyone else in the city’s notoriously competitive school lottery.
But the mayor doesn’t see it that way.
Muriel E. Bowser has refused to cast blame on her city administrator, her deputy mayor or her former chancellor of schools, despite an inspector general’s report that detailed a pattern of favoritism for kids of politically connected parents.
Inspector General Daniel Lucas found that former schools chancellor Kaya Henderson misused her authority by specially placing the children of well-connected people in desired schools, allowing them to bypass the lottery that determines school placements for thousands of families across the city.
The beneficiaries included two senior members of Bowser’s cabinet, former D.C. mayor Adrian M. Fenty, Roberto J. Rodriguez, who served in the Obama White House as an education adviser, as well as the director of a foundation that works with the school system and one of Henderson’s graduate school classmates.
Henderson received 10 requests for special placements in 2015 and granted seven, the inspector general found. His investigation examined just the 2015 lottery season and did not include the rest of Henderson’s tenure, from November 2010 to September 2016.
On a call-in radio program Friday, two days after The Washington Post published the confidential report from the inspector general, Bowser was asked whether she was slow to acknowledge public anger over the situation.
“Well, actually,” Bowser began, and then she launched into a recitation of ethics advice that public officials will get in the future before seeking special consideration for their children.
Bowser defended City Administrator Rashad Young and Deputy Mayor Courtney Snowden, saying they had availed themselves of the help that any parent could request from the chancellor.
If she had a regret, the mayor seemed to say it was regarding public perception.
“I am deeply sorry that we have to — that there’s any doubt about the decisions that were made by any member of my team,” Bowser said.
“That’s . . . outrageous,” said Denise Krepp, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission commissioner who let loose an expletive to underscore her point. Krepp’s family was among thousands in the city that played the school lottery and failed to win its first choice school.
“I didn’t call the mayor or the chancellor and ask for a placement, because you don’t. If it’s a pure lottery system, you don’t do that,” said Krepp, a former Obama administration appointee. “They manipulated it, and it’s very clear-cut. I don’t understand why the mayor hasn’t come out and said it was wrong — she should have.”
Lucas did not conclude that Henderson committed any crimes, but he said she violated guidelines and forwarded his findings to the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability for further action. Investigators were focused on Henderson and did not address whether the public officials she helped had abused their positions.
Council members, however, thought there was plenty wrong.
“As a parent, if I believed my child possibly missed out on an opportunity because of special treatment for connected people, I’d be pissed,” said Robert White (D-At Large).
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the education committee, said he wants to review “discretionary placements” beyond 2015 to see how frequently they were made and why.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and the director of the city’s ethics commission cast doubt on Bowser’s proposal that the commission review all future requests for special school placements from public officials. They said it was not clear what criteria would be used to evaluate whether a request for special placement is appropriate.
For Bowser’s critics, the lottery is another example of ethics concerns that have pulsed through other initiatives. Early on in her tenure, Bowser and her supporters were forced to abandon a political action committee over perceptions of pay-to-play politics. Last year, the council threw out the mayor’s plan to build several shelters for homeless families, after The Post reported the land deals would have profited some of the mayor’s top donors. A council report also is pending into allegations that Bowser’s administration pressured officials to award lucrative stadium contracts to the firm of another top donor.
“That overlay has made [the lottery investigation] possibly seem even worse to people,” council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said. “It can obviously feed that whole narrative and that’s an additional danger for her right now.”
Bowser promised last year that she would run for a second term, and with the District’s Democratic primary just over a year away, the mayor’s staff has been planning to transition into campaign mode this summer.
Cheh said the effect of the school lottery scandal on Bowser’s reelection is still “to be determined.”
“I don’t think they fully appreciated the intensity of the reaction because they were looking at it somewhat antiseptically — did anyone break the law? No, well, okay,” Cheh said. “But this is the kind of behavior that people react viscerally to. There’s a long line and when people cut, that’s infuriating.”
In an interview with The Post on Wednesday, Bowser, who does not have children, said it was not on her “radar” that people could seek discretionary school placements or that before the IG report there were ethical concerns about how political appointees used the procedure.
Bowser maintained that public officials like Young, the top appointed official in her administration, need clearer guidelines about how to approach the “gray area” ofdiscretionary placements.
“You ask me, ‘did he do anything wrong?’ Well, he asked, it appears, or contacted the chancellor, it appears, with some questions about the school where he was matched, so if he can’t have any contact with the chancellor, perhaps, that was a piece, a question, he could ask to the ethics board — ‘hey, I’m a parent, I’m going to be a DCPS parent, but I have some additional questions’ — all of, any public official would benefit from that,” Bowser said.
The closest the mayor came to apologizing was on Kojo Nnamdi’s show on WAMU-FM (88.5) last Friday. “I do get why people are angry,” she said. “I get angry if I think someone is jumping in line in front of me, and I recognize how important these school decisions are for families. . . . I am not happy about anybody having that view of our cabinet members, and we will change it.”
Bowser’s deputies, who referred questions from The Post to the mayor’s office, took to social media to defend themselves.
“I didn’t game the system. I properly applied and my kids attend the school they got through lottery,” Young wrote in a tweeted response to criticism by political consultant Chuck Thies, who managed the campaign of Bowser’s opponent in the 2014 election, then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
Thies countered, “At minimum, you missed a deadline and got special treatment that parents who aren’t politically connected don’t receive.”
Young tweeted back: “I had no ability to enroll my kids. I had no dc address, no utility bill, no pay stub with dc withholding. I didn’t ask for a favor.”
Young, who had been the city administrator in Alexandria, Va., before Bowser announced his hire in late 2014, had not yet moved into the District when he entered the lottery in spring of 2015.
He won seats for his two sons at Murch Elementary School, a high-performing school in Northwest, but did not enroll by the May 1 deadline. The chancellor arranged for Young to claim the seats months later, after Young and his family moved to a $1.2 million house outside the Murch school zone and east of Rock Creek Park.
According to the inspector general’s report and the lottery rules, if a family does not enroll by the deadline, the seat is forfeited and the school should have moved on to the approximately 800 other families on the Murch waiting list.
In a post on Facebook, Snowden also defended how the chancellor placed her son at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, a DCPS school with a waiting list of more than 1,000 students.
“Like every parent, I take the responsibility of raising my babies very seriously,” Snowden wrote. “As is the right of any District parent, I petitioned DCPS to secure a discretionary placement, and I am grateful that Chancellor Henderson was able to assist in securing a seat at a school that fit my child’s unique needs.”
Snowden’s child was placed at the school despite the fact that he did not appear to have prior Montessori schooling — a requirement for admission.
Dan Ridge, a 42-year-old computer scientist and ANC commissioner on Capitol Hill, sends his two children to a private Montessori school in the hope that they will one day be matched to Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan through the school lottery.
He said he was galled that Snowden was able to both bypass the lottery and evade the requirement that her son have previous Montessori schooling.
After reading the details in the IG’s report, Ridge said, the mayor’s defense of Snowden rings hollow.
“The report completely undercuts the mayor’s claim” that Snowden asked for a discretionary transfer in a manner available to every parent, Ridge said. He said that it was possible Bowser had not actually read the report before she spoke out in defense of Snowden and Young, but “if she had read this report, it’s simply dissembling to say that her staff did nothing wrong by asking.”
“It’s appalling,” Ridge said. “This is a big deal for a lot of families.”