The D.C. inspector general has found that former schools chancellor Kaya Henderson gave preferential treatment to certain city officials and some members of the public by improperly allowing their children to enroll in schools outside their neighborhood attendance boundaries, according to an internal memo.
The memo from Inspector General Daniel W. Lucas cited the results of an investigation into Henderson’s use of a regulation that authorizes the schools chief to grant a discretionary transfer “when the Chancellor determines that the transfer would be in the best interests of the student, and that the transfer would promote the overall interests of the school system.”
But according to the investigation, Henderson failed to act impartially in using that authority in 2015, enabling certain families to bypass the school lottery that every District family must use if they want their children to attend an out-of-boundary school.
For thousands of D.C. parents seeking better choices for their children, the lottery is a perennial source of angst and heartache.
Henderson stood by her actions, saying she had exercised the transfer authority in a “very limited” number of cases when “extraodinary circumstances” applied.
The one-page memo from Lucas to the D.C. Council, dated April 12, gave few other details and did not specify who asked Henderson for discretionary transfers and how many she issued. WRC-TV (Channel 4) reported the memo Friday.
Henderson resigned last year after nearly six years at the helm of D.C. Public Schools, a tenure that earned her national praise for leading the long-troubled urban system to significant improvements in student achievement.
She had served in the school system administration since 2007, starting as a deputy to schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee under then-Mayor Adrian Fenty (D).
In 2009, Rhee came under scrutiny when she used the same regulation to place Fenty’s twin children in a high-performing school outside his neighborhood boundary.
A DCPS spokeswoman said the investigation played no role in Henderson’s decision to leave the school system last fall.
Lucas referred the investigation’s results to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Feb. 10 “for action deemed appropriate.”
The memo said the deputy mayor for education has advised schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, Henderson’s successor, that the transfer authority is very limited “and must be used in an impartial manner, taking care not to show favoritism.”
Bowser offered no public criticism of Henderson.
“The law explicitly gives the chancellor authority to place students,” Kevin Harris, a mayoral spokesman, said in an email.
“Our current chancellor is committed to using his authority without any partiality other than what is in the best interests of students and the school system overall.
“Protocols are in place to focus the use of this authority for instances such as when a child’s safety demands it or for military families moving into the District.”
In a written statement to The Washington Post, Henderson said she did nothing wrong.
“As the IG report notes, in my capacity as Chancellor, I made a very limited number of discretionary placements for students when extraordinary circumstances applied. I stand by those actions,” Henderson said. “The IG does not provide evidence that placements were made improperly, only that they were discretionary. If leaders in DC do not believe that there are situations when the chancellor should exercise discretion in determining student placements, they should eliminate that provision of the statute.
“If leaders believe that, on rare occasions, there are unusual circumstances that require the judgment of the [school] district leader, they should accept that discretionary placements will depend on judgment. I am deeply disappointed by these continual attacks on my integrity in an attempt to besmirch my personal and professional reputation.”
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said he was trying to find out more about the results of the investigation — which was disclosed to the council Thursday night — but that interference in lottery placements by a schools chancellor “certainly seems to run counter to the whole idea of a school lottery.”
“The whole point of the lottery is that nobody has their thumb on the scale,” he said.
Matt Nocella, a spokesman for D. C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee, said in a statement that Grosso “is concerned about the report and making sure the same mistakes are not repeated in the future. He will be requesting a briefing from the Office of the Inspector General.”