The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. mayor called her ousted school chancellor’s action ‘indefensible.’ He says she knew about it for months.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, right, former deputy mayor for education Jennifer Niles and then-D.C. schools chancellor Antwan Wilson in 2016. (Ricky Carioti)

Former D.C. Public Schools chancellor Antwan Wilson said he told Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) that he had transferred his daughter to one of the city’s most desirable high schools in October, four months before Bowser forced Wilson to resign when news of the transfer became ­public.

Wilson’s account is at odds with statements by the mayor and her top aides that they didn’t know his daughter had been given a coveted seat at Woodrow Wilson High School, a campus in Northwest Washington with a waiting list of more than 600 students. That transfer bypassed the lottery used to award scarce seats in the District’s top public schools and violated a policy that bans preferential treatment for the children of government ­officials.

In a brief interview Monday, the mayor again denied she knew about the school transfer. “I in no way approved of a transfer or knew about an illegal transfer,” she said.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson “made a mistake" when he bypassed the school lottery system to help his daughter. (Video: WUSA9)

The former chancellor’s allegations threaten to revive a controversy that Bowser, who is running for reelection, sought to contain by demanding the resignations of both Wilson and Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles. The revelation that Wilson’s daughter had skipped the line for a spot at a sought-after school angered parents across the city and led seven of the 13 D.C. Council members to call for Wilson’s resignation.

Deputy mayor resigns after allowing chancellor to bypass school lottery

Bowser has largely avoided blame for recent scandals swirling around DCPS, including widespread enrollment fraud at the city’s top performing arts school and inflated graduation rates that are now the subject of a federal investigation.

Now she risks facing some of the anger over Wilson’s evasion of school-enrollment policies as she confronts the contradictions between her own statements and those of her former schools chief.

“It seems laughable that the mayor and the folks running our school system believed D.C. parents would be okay with this — both the transfer and the lie,” said Becky Reina, a Ward 1 resident whose oldest child went through the lottery and was waitlisted at the family’s top three choices. He is a first-grader at a school that was their fourth choice.

D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the education committee, said Monday he will hold a hearing into the circumstances around the school transfer and ask the mayor, Wilson and Niles to testify under oath. Council committees can subpoena witnesses who ­refuse to appear voluntarily.

“We will be looking to get to the bottom of this,” Grosso said. “I feel like it’s time for us to have a public conversation, under oath, about what happened.”

The mayor has repeatedly said she first learned of the transfer on Feb. 12, when D.C. Inspector General Daniel W. Lucas informed her that he was looking into the circumstances surrounding the placement of the chancellor’s daughter at Wilson High.

At a news conference one week later where she announced Wilson’s resignation, Bowser said the decision by Wilson and Niles to move the girl to a new school in the way they had was “inexplicable” and “indefensible.”

Niles — who also resigned as a result of the scandal — was the only senior member of her administration who knew what had transpired, Bowser said.

“What we have is two people with incredible credentials and intelligence that made bad decisions that for us were unpredictable and unpreventable,” the mayor said.

But in his first interview since resigning, Wilson told The Washington Post that he informed the mayor at a meeting in late September that he was working with Niles to move his daughter out of Duke Ellington School for the Arts, where she was unhappy. He said he told Bowser in early October that his daughter had moved to Wilson High.

Anu Rangappa, Bowser’s communications director, confirmed the mayor met with Wilson on Sept. 20 and Oct. 11, but said nothing related to Wilson’s daughter was on the written agenda for either meeting.

Wilson was initially contrite when news of the school transfer became public. But while he said he has no “animosity” toward Bowser, he has since bridled at descriptions of himself and Niles as rogue actors who broke the rules without the mayor’s ­knowledge.

“I’ve seen that narrative, and I’ve been disappointed in it,” Wilson said. “Because it’s not accurate.”

The Post could not independently verify Wilson’s account. Niles, who Wilson said was present for at least the initial meeting where he told Bowser of his plans to transfer his daughter to a new high school, declined to comment. Wilson said his conversations with Bowser were verbal and not in a written form.

John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff, said in a written statement that Bowser had no recollection of Wilson telling her that his daughter was changing schools and would not have approved the transfer if she had known about it.

Wilson did not allege that the mayor was directly involved in his daughter’s placement at her new school or that she knowingly tolerated a violation of school-district policy. He said he believed at the time of his conversations with Bowser that the transfer was acceptable, and that the mayor never questioned him about it.

He also said when he would see Bowser on occasion, the mayor would inquire about his family and ask how his daughter was doing at Wilson High.

One year after arriving in D.C., a schools chancellor under fire

Wilson — who came to the District from Oakland just over a year ago — said he had tried to be a “team player” as the Bowser administration sought to manage the uproar over his actions last month, and opted not to disclose to council members that the mayor was aware of his daughter’s school switch.

Last week, the former chancellor signed a separation agreement that awards him $140,000, half of his salary. In the wake of his departure, he said, he had decided to offer a more complete defense of his actions. “I just want people to know that I tried to follow the rules,” Wilson said.

A parent can request a school transfer from the chancellor in limited cases when it is determined to be in the best interest of the student or school system. However, such transfers are specifically prohibited for the children of public officials to prevent the appearance of ­favoritism.

Wilson said he came to Niles in September with a dilemma: His daughter was miserable at Ellington and he and his wife were considering enrolling her in private school or sending her to live with relatives outside the District.

Wilson said he and Niles decided Wilson’s wife would handle a transfer for the girl to another D.C. public school — an arrangement they hoped would put the chancellor at arm’s length and eliminate concerns about favoritism.

The former chancellor said his wife was presented with three options: Wilson High and two selective schools, Banneker High School and School Without Walls.

He said his daughter, a sophomore, had already passed the admissions test for School Without Walls.

Wilson’s family lives in Langdon in Northeast Washington, and their assigned neighborhood high school is Dunbar, a low-performing and high-poverty school. The former chancellor said his family was attracted by the diverse student body at Wilson High, which is 35 percent black, 31 percent white, 23 percent Latino and 7 percent Asian.

Secret probe points to widespread enrollment fraud at D.C. high school

The move violated a policy Wilson himself enacted last summer, after the D.C. inspector general found two other members of Bowser’s cabinet, City Administrator Rashad M. Young and Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden, had circumvented the school lottery to enroll their children at top elementary schools.

The lottery — required of any students who wish to enroll outside their neighborhood boundaries — is designed to ensure equal access to top public schools regardless of money, geography or political influence.

Conducted each spring, the lottery is an angst-ridden ritual for D.C. parents, most of whom find their children waitlisted at their chosen campuses.

Wilson insisted that while his family did not follow the normal enrollment process, he had not asked for special treatment.

“I went to my bosses and had a conversation and made no demands,” Wilson said. “We didn’t ask for schools by name or anything like that, we just knew that we wanted options in DCPS and that was important to us.”

He added, “If we were told [Dunbar] was our only option then we would have considered it, but that’s not what we were told.”

In his first meeting with Bowser and her advisers following the news that the inspector general was investigating the matter, Wilson said he was shocked when the mayor said she was unaware his daughter had transferred from Ellington.

“To me, these were really important serious conversations. I moved 3,000 miles, brought my family here, it’s important stuff,” Wilson said.

Bowser at first said she remained confident in Wilson’s leadership and ordered him to issue a public apology. Wilson spent the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend meeting with reporters and council members in what was ultimately a fruitless attempt to save his job. He resigned the following Tuesday.

He is on administrative leave until March 7, when he will be removed from the city payroll.

He has twins who are still attending J.O. Wilson Elementary School, where he said they were placed through the standard lottery process.

He would not say where his oldest daughter is enrolled or whether she is attending school after she withdrew from Wilson High on Feb. 16.

Wilson said he is unsure of what he will do next, but he plans to continue his career in education. “The focus needs to be put back on making sure these kids get a great education,” he said. “And I’m going to go off and make a difference in a different way.”

D.C. schools have been dogged by scandals in recent months that could weaken confidence in the school system.

The Washington Post reported last week that an internal investigation has uncovered signs of widespread enrollment fraud at Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

Bowser has said her administration is trying to address such problems in a spirit of transparency as they come to light. At her news conference on the day of Wilson’s resignation, she cited the transfer of the former chancellor’s daughter as an example.

“What’s important is that when we found out about it, that we made the information available, did our best to investigate and to make decisions that were in the best interests of our children and our system,” Bowser said.

Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.

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