In the weeks since D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) announced Dr. Lewis Ferebee as her choice for school chancellor, a contingent of educators have stood on the front lines, criticizing the selection process, like others before it, as one clouded in secrecy and of little benefit to them, and DC Public Schools students and parents.
However, as Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth Davis articulated during a community roundtable at Cardozo Education Campus in Northwest earlier this week, many teachers want to help the D.C. Council vet Ferebee, former superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, to the fullest extent and bring to light questionable aspects of his experience.
“The Washington Teachers’ Union might have been able to alleviate the pressure the council is now under by sharing with it at a much earlier stage in the chancellor search process information that we could have gotten from our colleagues in in the classrooms of Indianapolis,” Davis said on Wednesday.
In 2016, shortly after Mayor Bowser announced Antwan Wilson would serve as chancellor, Davis and others decried her choice as a violation of public trust that would taint Wilson’s tenure. On the day of an emergency press conference at Eastern High School in Southeast, selection committee members had received word that Wilson would replace Kaya Henderson just two hours prior.
The ire of teachers and parents who felt left out would carry over in discussions around who would replace Wilson, who resigned in early 2018 amid controversy surrounding his circumvention of the school lottery system to enroll his daughter in Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest. In June, before the start of the selection process, Ward 8 State Board of Education Representative Markus Batchelor and others demanded transparency in Mayor Bowser’s final decision.
Weeks later, at the prodding of D.C. parents who filed a lawsuit, Mayor Bowser added two students, a parent, and a teacher to the Our Schools Leadership Committee, the group that would determine the next chancellor.
Such overtures, however, didn’t suffice for Davis, she said, primarily because teachers didn’t get to vet what she said amounted to nearly 40 candidates for the chancellor position.
“She did not involve the Washington Teachers’ Union in the deliberations that led to her choice,” she continued in her statement on Wednesday. “We did not learn about her choice of Ferebee until it was too late. But it’s not too late now for the Council to include the Washington Teachers’ Union in its fact-finding mission. After all, who knows the needs of DC public schools better than educators who work closest with students and their families every day than teachers?”
D.C. law stipulates that the chancellor selection committee be presented with resumes of candidates. The mayor would also have to “give great weight” to the Washington Teachers’ Union’s recommendations.
Davis’ concerns echoed that of local teachers and elected officials who questioned Ferebee’s collaboration with charter schools to run low-performing elementary campuses in the Indianapolis Public Schools system.
Another point of contention involved what had been described as Ferebee’s lack of classroom experience, which, to some, overshadowed his administrative accomplishments in Indianapolis and Durham Public Schools.
Wednesday’s roundtable, the second of two hosted by the D.C. Council Committee on Education, allowed for members of the public to speak and ask question about Ferebee, now acting chancellor, before D.C. Council members David Grosso (I-At large), Phil Mendelson (D), Robert White (D-At large), Trayon White (D-Ward 8), Elissa Silverman (I-At large), and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).
On the evening of January 30, during the first roundtable at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Northeast, Council members Robert and Trayon White expressed concerns that centered around Ferebee’s infusion of charter schools into struggling public institutions while at the helm of Indianapolis Public Schools.
Grosso, just as he had done in a written statement hours after Bowser’s December 3 announcement, made known his reservations about the nomination process. He also pledged to inquire further about allegations that Ferebee overlooked a counselor’s alleged sexual misconduct while at the helm of Indianapolis Public Schools.
In a moment that revealed the true tenor of DCPS teachers at this point in the confirmation process, Eboni-Rose Thompson, Ward 7 education council chair and daughter of a teacher at Patterson Elementary School in Southwest, told Council member Gray what her mother said upon finding out Mayor Bowser placed her support behind Ferebee.
“My mother thought there would be a couple different candidates,” Thompson said as she referenced school boundary changes, a cause Gray championed during his stint as D.C. mayor.
“We did this survey twice and one thing that didn’t change was that people didn’t feel engaged in the process,” she continued. “With the school boundary changes, people understood and knew why they didn’t get what they wanted. People here just want to know why.”