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D.C. Council unanimously backs Lewis D. Ferebee as schools chancellor

Lewis D. Ferebee won unanimous support Tuesday from the D.C. Council to be the District’s schools chancellor.
Lewis D. Ferebee won unanimous support Tuesday from the D.C. Council to be the District’s schools chancellor. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Lewis D. Ferebee was confirmed Tuesday as chancellor of the District’s public schools, receiving a vote of support from each of the 13 D.C. Council members.

The vote arrived three months after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) nominated the former Indianapolis schools superintendent to lead the District’s 49,000-student system. It came nearly two months after Ferebee moved to Washington to serve as the city’s acting chancellor.

And the unanimous vote came on the heels of some council members expressing reservations about the nominee and vowing to conduct a rigorous confirmation process.

“I thank Mayor Bowser for nominating me to serve as Chancellor and the community for welcoming me to the District,” Ferebee said in a statement. “I am also grateful for our partners on the DC Council for their support. Together, we will lead [D.C. Public Schools] into its next phase of excellence.”

Is Lewis D. Ferebee the leader to close D.C.’s achievement gap? His time in the Midwest may provide clues.

Ferebee, who is 44 and will earn a base salary of $280,000 a year, is the city’s sixth permanent school leader since 2000. He arrives at a fraught moment in the history of D.C. schools, with the system emerging from more than a year marked by controversy. The city continues to struggle with a wide achievement gap between more affluent students and those from low-income families.

Ferebee’s predecessor was forced to resign amid scandal last year, leaving the school system without a permanent leader for more than a year.

Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the Education Committee, cited the dire need for a permanent leader as a reason his colleagues should rally behind Ferebee.

“As policymakers and leaders, we have a responsibility to provide that stability, and not create more instability,” Grosso said from the dais Tuesday.

Over the past two months, Ferebee has visited schools, attended community meetings and met with council members one on one, trying to win residents’ and elected officials’ support.

Council members said Tuesday that they had high hopes for Ferebee’s tenure in the District. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) shared a report that his committee — the Committee of the Whole — had compiled on the nominee, concluding that Ferebee would be a proponent for the traditional public school system.

“Dr. Ferebee is widely viewed to have been a collaborator and coalition builder in Indianapolis,” said Mendelson, who visited Indianapolis after Ferebee’s nomination. “Both the testimony and our interviews have convinced the Committee of the Whole that Dr. Ferebee intends to be a leader for D.C. Public Schools and not a facilitator for charter schools.”

Some residents had expressed significant concerns about ­aspects of Ferebee’s record in Indianapolis. That included ­dismantling the neighborhood high school system and turning over many of the city’s lowest-performing schools to charter operators. During Ferebee’s tenure in Indianapolis, black students fell further behind their white peers on standardized tests, according to Indianapolis school data. Passing rates on standardized tests for nearly every demographic group dropped from 2015 to 2018, the heart of Ferebee’s time as Indianapolis superintendent — and the decline was steepest for students of color.

Can the acting chancellor of D.C. Public Schools earn your trust? He’s going to try?

Some council members echoed their constituents’ concerns.

But Ferebee seemed to have assuaged some of their fears.

Council members Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) — who sit on the Education Committee — voted present during the committee meeting last week, saying they had doubts about the nomination.

But both officials voted Tuesday in favor of Ferebee, saying they met with the school leader, who committed to addressing their concerns.

Trayon White said Ferebee agreed to work to expand and better market career and technical education programs in high schools — something the council member, whose district includes neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, has been advocating for his constituents.

Robert White said Ferebee pledged to study teacher retention rates and the teacher evaluation system within his first two years on the job.

The council members said their responsibility is ensuring they hold Ferebee and the school system accountable during his tenure.

“The system right now is not working for students of color,” Robert White said. “There is no way around that.”

Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) also cast a reluctant vote for Ferebee. She said that the mayor’s process to select Ferebee had not been transparent, leading people to assume he was “rubber stamped” for approval.

But she credited Ferebee with being accessible, visible and engaging with families and educators during his time as acting chancellor.

“Part of the concern about Ferebee’s nomination has simply nothing to do with Dr. Ferebee,” Silverman said. “It has to do with the process in which we select a leader for our schools. The chancellor needs to have the confidence of students, parents, teachers, principals and all interested and engaged community members.”

Read more: D.C. is one of the nation’s highest-profile school systems. Do people still want to lead it?

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