Expressing “enormous frustration over education,” District lawmakers are vowing to rigorously review Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s choice to lead the city’s schools, portending a potentially bruising confirmation process.
Several D.C. Council members offered blistering critiques of the school system in speeches last week as they were sworn in for their next terms. The 13-member council approves mayoral nominations and will review Bowser’s selection of Lewis D. Ferebee as schools chancellor.
Ferebee visited the District last week, holding introductory meetings with the people who will decide his fate.
“There is enormous frustration over education,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who focused most of his swearing-in speech on the capital city’s education struggles. “If this was a private-sector corporation whose sole product is educated people, we would file for bankruptcy.”
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), while being sworn in for a fourth term, took aim at the quality of education provided by the city’s schools.
“We take a child at age 5, put them through our school system, and graduate them 12 years later and some of them are functionally illiterate,” Cheh said. “That’s a crime, ladies and gentleman, we have to stop that.”
Bowser (D) announced Dec. 3 that Ferebee, the superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, was her pick to lead the District’s traditional public school system, which educates about 49,000 students. She selected Ferebee over Amanda Alexander, a D.C. school system veteran who has served as interim chancellor since February.
The District’s top education job became vacant nearly a year ago when Antwan Wilson, barely a year into his stint as chancellor, was forced to resign after it was discovered that he skirted city rules to get one of his children a spot in a coveted high school.
Mendelson said in an interview Friday that he expects Ferebee to receive a more thorough examination than most of the mayor’s nominees who have gone before the council. The council chairman moved last month to assume greater power over the city’s school system as he gave his panel — the Committee of the Whole — joint responsibility with the Education Committee for oversight of schools.
“We will see that there will be more scrutiny from the council members and the public than we typically see with mayoral nominations,” Mendelson said. “There’s more concern about the quality of education, that’s why there will be more scrutiny.”
Before the council votes on Ferebee’s nomination, council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the Education Committee, said he will host two community forums and a more formal hearing for legislators at city hall.
In a statement, Ferebee said: “I am grateful for the confidence Mayor Bowser has expressed in my leadership and commitment to providing all students and families high-quality educational opportunities. I have tremendous respect for the confirmation process and I appreciate the time I am being afforded to engage in conversations with Council members.”
Grosso cannot schedule the hearings until Bowser formally submits her nomination of Ferebee to the council, which he said she has not done.
A spokeswoman for the mayor said Bowser will send the nomination to the council this week.
Grosso said he expects the three meetings to occur in consecutive weeks at the end of January and beginning of February.
Ferebee, who is expected to start the job later this month, could be installed as acting chancellor before being confirmed.
“Nothing is a done deal until a majority of the council votes on it,” Grosso said. “This is his opportunity to sell himself and his candidacy to the city.”
Mendelson predicted that if a vote were held today, Ferebee would be approved. The public forums, he said, will help council members understand the public’s stance and inform lawmakers’ votes.
Council member Charles Allen, who sits on the education panel, said he has not decided whether he will support Ferebee. Allen (D-Ward 6) said he briefly met Friday with Ferebee, who did not offer his vision for D.C. schools, saying instead that he would listen to the public before he institutes change. Until he understands Ferebee’s plans, Allen said he was not prepared to vote yes.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m a good listener and trust me,’ ” Allen said. “We’re not going to hire him because he’s a nice guy. It needs to be because he is bringing a good vision.”
Cheh, who recently spoke with Ferebee about education policy, said she left her meeting feeling encouraged about Ferebee’s leadership.
“What we need now is a strong partner to take a frank look at what we have done, and where we have not done well, and have a road map for improvement,” said Cheh, among the most vocal education critics on the council. “I did come away from that meeting feeling optimistic that he could be that right partner.”