A former D.C. schools chancellor and another top official ousted by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for helping the chancellor’s daughter skirt the competitive school lottery said they mentioned the child’s school placement to the mayor but they could not recall if she responded further, according to a report released Friday by the city’s Office of the Inspector General.
The report details how D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson and Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles helped create a controversy that cost them their jobs in February and led to an outcry from parents who said they had lost trust in their school officials and the high-stakes lottery.
Wilson has said he tried to play by the rules when transferring his daughter and even told the mayor about the transfer in conversations — a charge that the mayor has repeatedly denied. But the report marks the first time that Niles has spoken about the incident, and she partly backs Wilson’s claim, saying she heard him mention to the mayor that his daughter was attending the high-performing Wilson High School. The chancellor’s daughter attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts at the beginning of the school year, which Bowser has said she knew.
The mayor told investigators that she did not recall the conversation cited by Niles, and the report did not conclude whether Bowser was aware of the transfer before the controversy.
Bowser repeated her claims in a Saturday interview. “I stand behind everything I said to the inspector general,” she said. “The bottom line is, we put together a policy about discretionary transfers, and that policy was violated. And that’s unfortunate, but that’s what happened.”
The report says neither Wilson nor Niles could recall the mayor responding to Wilson’s reference to his daughter’s schooling.
“Niles said she had no recollection of Chancellor Wilson telling Mayor Bowser that his child was having trouble at Duke Ellington but did recall a meeting at which Chancellor Wilson told the Mayor that his child was ‘doing better’ and attending [Wilson High],” the report states.
The report portrays a scenario in which the two top school officials appeared to understand the political hazards of the transfer.It concluded the two made some efforts to avoid giving the chancellor’s daughter preferential treatment, but ultimately their actions led to rules being bypassed.
Niles told investigators that Wilson called her to inform her in September 2017 that his daughter was “unhappy” at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a prestigious public school specializing in performing arts.
The chancellor said he wanted his wife to handle conversations about how to transfer her to a new school to avoid applying undue influence as head of the school system, Niles recalled.
The deputy mayor called Jane Spence, the deputy chief of secondary schools, to ask her to speak to Wilson’s wife about their options. Niles and Wilson recalled that the family did not ask for a specific school and said private school was an alternative if they could not find another option.
“I want to make sure that we follow all of the rules and that there’s no undue influence because of the Chancellor’s [child]. That’s really, really important,” Niles recalled telling Spence.
Spence acknowledged to investigators that she arranged for his daughter to be transferred to Wilson High School at the suggestion of Wilson’s wife. She said she was unfamiliar with the policies surrounding such transfers because she usually wasn’t involved in them.
Spence told investigators “anybody would take away that this is a special circumstance if the Deputy Mayor for Education for the City is calling you about a child and that child is the child of your boss.”
Spence was placed on leave in January over an unrelated schools scandal.
Niles said her call to Spence was the end of her involvement. She said she didn’t realize the gravity of the situation until the mayor’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio, and general counsel asked about the circumstances of the transfer. The mayor’s office said those conversations occurred in February.
Bowser told investigators she first spoke to Niles about the transfer a week after Niles’ resignation. Bowser said Niles told her she didn’t seek special treatment for the chancellor, to which the mayor said she retorted that contacting the school system constituted special treatment.
The Bowser administration was already reeling from a scandal last year in which investigators discovered that senior government officials received preferential placements for their children at high-performing public schools. Wilson, in one of his first acts at chancellor, created a policy to prohibit such special treatment.
The revelation that the top schools official violated his own policy created a public outcry that forced Wilson’s resignation.
The Office of the Inspector General concluded that rules were not followed in the transfer.
“Although we found no evidence indicating the (Deputy Mayor for Education), the Chancellor, or the Chief of Secondary Schools intended to bypass policies and procedures, the OIG concludes that personal intervention by these senior District officials set in motion a series of events that resulted in the Wilson family receiving preferential treatment when their child was transferred to WHS,” the report reads.
In response to the report, the mayor said she already took appropriate action by demanding the resignations of Wilson and Niles and by reviewing the policies for school transfers.
“The separations sent a strong signal to all that high officials are not exempt from policies and procedures, particularly when those very policies are in place to guard against favoritism,” Bowser wrote in an Oct. 5 letter.
In an interview Saturday, Wilson spoke of his tenure. “I worked hard, and I love this city, and I always worked intentionally to try and follow every rule here,” he said. “I wish the city well, and I hope they continue to close the achievement gap, which started under my leadership.”
Niles could not immediately be reached Saturday.
The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability has completed a separate investigation into the transfer and is expected to release a report soon.