D.C. Council Member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) called on the council’s education committee to hold a hearing on former schools chancellor Antwan Wilson’s resignation, pressuring the committee’s chairman, who backed down last week from convening what could be a contentious public airing.
The council needs to “hold government officials accountable in a public forum” White said Monday, adding that his constituents want to understand Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s involvement in the scandal that prompted her to oust the chancellor.
“The council is really the only entity that can be both a voice and microphone for residents,” White said. “And we have to ensure we are doing that.”
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the education committee, had pledged last Monday to hold a hearing, after Wilson told The Washington Post that Bowser (D) knew for months about his daughter’s improper transfer to a top D.C. high school but forced him to resign only after it became public.
Bowser has repeatedly said she was not aware of the transfer.
But at the end of last week, after speaking privately to the mayor and one of her attorneys, Grosso backtracked. He said his committee needed to focus on other problems in the school system.
Bowser has said she would refuse to testify under oath before Grosso’s committee, calling it a “political circus” and noting that her office is cooperating with an investigation by the D.C. inspector general.
“We’re focused on finishing the school year strong, getting ready for the next school year and making critical investments in the budget that the mayor will submit next week,” said the mayor’s spokeswoman, Anu Rangappa.
Grosso declined to comment on Monday about White’s call for a hearing.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) backs a hearing, saying the council’s oversight of city agencies is critical to ensuring they are operating in the public’s best interest.
White said he wants Bowser, Wilson and the former deputy mayor for education Jennifer Niles — whom Bowser also forced to resign for her role in transferring the chancellor’s daughter — to testify under oath.
Niles, who has not spoken publicly about the scandal, could be key in determining who is telling the truth about the improper transfer — Wilson or the mayor.
Wilson has said he would willingly testify. Niles has not indicated whether she would participate, but the education committee can vote to issue subpoenas to uncooperative witnesses to compel them to appear.
“Absolutely, we have to subpoena Niles, and perhaps former chancellor Wilson,” White said.
The law is unclear about whether the council has the power to subpoena the mayor — and if that would violate the separation of powers between the legislative and the executive branches, White said. He said he would not push to subpoena Bowser because it could lead to lengthy legal proceedings.
It’s unclear if a majority of the education committee will join White’s call.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said that he also supports a public hearing and that witnesses should be subpoenaed if necessary.
“A full airing would be an important part of rebuilding the trust that’s broken with parents and school communities,” Allen said in a text message.
Council member Anita Bonds (D-At-Large) declined to say if she’d support a hearing.
“I do believe that there are many questions that the people of DC would like answered,” Bonds said in a statement. “Moreover, the concern that’s before the community is whether or not we are able to put this behind us and continue to make progress in our schools.”
Both Allen and Bonds are up for reelection this year.
Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) could not immediately be reached for comment.
A public hearing could be damaging to Bowser, who is in the midst of a reelection campaign, although she does not yet face any credible challengers.
D.C. Inspector General Daniel W. Lucas is undertaking a broad review of multiple problems in the public school system, including inflated graduation rates. The scope and complexity of that probe mean his findings may not be released before the Democratic primary in June.
Wilson and Niles were forced to resign after it became public that Wilson’s daughter skipped a waiting list of more than 600 students to enroll at Woodrow Wilson High instead of enrolling in her neighborhood school, Dunbar High. In doing so, she avoided the school lottery other families must enter for seats at desirable schools outside their neighborhoods.
Joe Weedon, a father of two public school students and the Ward 6 representative on the State Board of Education, said the council needs to hold a hearing.
“The only way to restore trust is to get to the truth and to get to the answers of who knew what when,” Weedon said. “More importantly, I think we need to focus on what we need to learn from this, why was one of our schools not good enough to send our children.”
Eboni-Rose Thompson, an education activist in Ward 7, said she understood the desire to get to the bottom of the transfer scandal, but wasn’t sure a public hearing would improve accountability.
“Maybe there might be a sense of resolution for some people to have the mayor say yes or no to certain things and deputy mayor Niles to say yes or no,” Thompson said. “My question, though, is what does that do for our path forward?”