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D.C. schools chancellor bats away calls for resignation after he sought special treatment

D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson visits  Washington Metropolitan High School on the first day of school, Aug. 21, 2017.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson visits Washington Metropolitan High School on the first day of school, Aug. 21, 2017. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

(Update: D.C. Public Schools leader to resign after skirting school assignment rules)

The D.C. schools chancellor brushed aside growing calls for his resignation, saying he remained focused on his job.

By Tuesday morning, seven members of the D.C. Council - a majority - said Chancellor Antwan Wilson should step down following revelations that he sought special treatment to enroll his daughter in a top D.C. high school, just two months after Wilson crafted rules prohibiting such behavior.

Wilson said in an interview Monday that he understands he needs to rebuild trust with the community.

“I wish I could go back and look up and talk to as many people as I could about the challenge I was facing,” said Wilson, who spent the weekend apologizing to council members. “I failed miserably. It wasn’t a mistake out of anything other than trying to ensure that my daughter’s well-being was taken care of.”

This video from the D.C. government explains the process for families applying to the school lottery and how children are matched to schools. (Video: My School DC)

Wilson said he plans to host a virtual town hall next week where parents can ask him about the controversy.

But over the weekend, council members Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson said the damage was beyond repair. Members Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) joined the call for Wilson’s resignation on Tuesday.

“The trust is just gone and there’s no way he’s going to get it back,” said Allen, who became convinced after talking with dozens of parents over the weekend that they would not tolerate the prospect of D.C. schools being led through a time of crisis by a leader who admitted to breaking rules he personally created.

Allegations about inflated graduation rates that originated at Ballou High School in Southeast D.C. have engulfed the entire public school system. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) can terminate Wilson’s employment without cause, according to the chancellor’s contract. The contract — carrying a $280,000 annual base salary, a $14,000 signing fee and the possibility of a 10 percent performance bonus — expires in January 2019.

Bowser, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the education committee, met behind closed doors on Tuesday morning to discuss the situation.

Bowser has said she maintains confidence in the chancellor, whom she appointed in 2017. She disclosed Wilson’s violations on Friday afternoon, ahead of the long holiday weekend. The mayor forced the chancellor to issue a public apology and accepted the resignation on Friday of Jennifer Niles, the deputy mayor for education who helped Wilson’s family circumvent the rules.

Deputy mayor resigns after helping chancellor skirt rules

But there was little sign by Monday that Niles’s resignation had served to blunt public anger.

On the contrary; over the weekend, lawmakers were barraged by upset constituents, saying Wilson had lost the credibility to lead the schools at a time when a nationally publicized scandal over inflated graduation rates had already tested parents’ trust in the system.

The chancellor lives in Langdon. He has twins enrolled at J.O. Wilson Elementary, where the chancellor says they were placed through the citywide lottery. Langdon Elementary is their neighborhood school, where most of the children live in poverty and 13 percent met expectations on last year’s standardized math test while 14 percent met expections in reading.

His oldest child, a dancer, was enrolled at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the selective public school in Georgetown where admission is based on an audition, interview and exam.

But Wilson said after school started, his daughter became withdrawn. He and his wife decided Ellington wasn’t a good fit, and approached Niles about their options to transfer to another school. Their neighborhood choice is Dunbar, a high poverty school where 1 percent of students met expectations on last year’s standardized math test while 6 percent met expectations in reading.

Wilson’s wife discussed the matter with the deputy mayor, and his daughter transferred to Wilson High School in Northwest, which has a waiting list of 639 families that tried but failed to gain entry through the lottery.

“I sought guidance because the avenues of transfer all came through me,” Wilson said. “I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t putting any pressure on anyone to do something for my daughter. I had tunnel vision. I was focusing on the district and facing a great deal of pressure at home with what was happening with our daughter.”

Asked twice whether Bowser knew his daughter had been moved to Wilson High, the chancellor deflected and talked about his focus on improving the school district. Bowser said Friday that she did not know about the transfer to Wilson.

The chancellor’s daughter left Wilson on Friday; it is unclear where she will attend school.

Cheh said in a statement that Wilson “should be replaced for reasons that go well beyond the placement issue,” saying she was not satisfied with his response to revelations that many of the city’s public high school graduates last year should not have received diplomas because of truancy and other problems.

“He is committed to following the same flawed system that has led us to graduating students who are not at all ready for college or careers and, in some cases, are functionally illiterate,” Cheh said, adding that Wilson should be replaced “in an orderly fashion” that would not “introduce immediate instability into the system.”

One year after arriving in D.C., Wilson under fire

Cheh suggested the council should take a more active role when it comes to selecting Wilson’s successor. “It won’t do to just find another person, interim or permanent, who will carry on the same failed and flawed policies,” she said.

The new scandal, coming near the peak of the 2018 election season, also appeared to be developing into a citywide litmus test for political candidates. There have been multiple calls for Wilson’s resignation from challengers to sitting council members, including Ward 6 Republican Michael Bekesha, who is running against Allen, and Democrat Ed Lazere, the chief executive of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, who is seeking to replace Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).

It is unclear what the new political dynamic might mean for Bowser. Although no serious challengers have emerged to her reelection bid for a second term, several weeks remain before the filing deadline.

The citywide lottery system allows families who are unhappy with their neighborhood schools to win a seat at a different D.C. public school or charter school, if there is excess capacity in that school. But demand is great for the best-performing schools, where hundreds of families might compete for a handful of seats.

Council members said they have fielded complaints from parents who are enraged that the top school official would cheat a system that causes so much stress for the average D.C. family.

“While I believe Chancellor Wilson had demonstrated skill in leading the system, I also believe that he has lost — and will be unable to regain — the trust of so many parents that is vital to the success of DC Public Schools,” Allen said in a statement Monday afternoon. “Without that public trust, any Chancellor will be unable to advance a vision.”

D.C. public schools target of federal investigation

This lottery imbroglio comes as Wilson is already attempting to manage the earlier controversy over the fact that one-third of 2017 graduates should not have received a diploma because they missed too many classes or improperly took makeup classes.

“I want to focus on rebuilding trust with the community. . . . I am deeply apologetic to everyone for being here,” Wilson said. “I believe that we are going to be the best urban school district and a district where every child feels loved, challenged and prepared.”