Wednesday, June 13, 2007

School activists and civic leaders are questioning whether D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s choice to head the city’s public schools has the necessary experience to reform the troubled system.

“I don’t feel that I know much about her and whether she can grow into a really nasty job,” said Mary Levy, who directs the public education reform project for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “I’ve watched the others, and it’s an enormous leap.”

“Her lack of experience and qualifications really frightens me,” said Gina Arlotto, co-founder of the group Save Our Schools D.C.

On Tuesday, Mr. Fenty, a Democrat, named former Baltimore elementary-school teacher Michelle A. Rhee, 37, as his choice for the new position of schools chancellor.

If her selection is approved by the D.C. Council, she will replace fired Superintendent Clifford B. Janey and become the seventh D.C. schools chief in the past 10 years.

In 1997, Mrs. Rhee founded the New Teacher Project — a nonprofit that recruits teachers for work in urban school districts.

Her work has earned Mrs. Rhee accolades such as the Gleitsman Citizen Activist Award in 2004 and praise from first lady Laura Bush, who invited Mrs. Rhee to be her guest at the State of the Union address in 2004.

As chancellor, Mrs. Rhee would be charged with heading a school system with a budget that tops $1 billion and has 11,500 employees.

At her nonprofit, she oversaw a staff of 120, and the group reported revenues of about $13 million in 2005.

Questions have arisen over whether Mr. Fenty adequately vetted Mrs. Rhee’s selection with the public.

His takeover legislation says that “prior to the selection of a nominee for chancellor,” the mayor is supposed to establish a review panel of teachers, parents and students and provide the panel with “the resumes and other pertinent information pertaining to the individuals under consideration” for the chancellor’s position.

He also is required to convene a meeting of the panel to hear its recommendations.

Fenty spokeswoman Mafara Hobson yesterday said a review panel that included two parents, two teachers and two students met last week.

One of the parents on the panel is Jackie Pinckney-Hackett, who was hired by Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso, a Fenty appointee, to head the Office of Parent and Community Involvement at a salary of $95,000 per year.

Blondine Hughes, a teacher on the panel, is an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 4 and was in charge of Mr. Fenty’s satellite office when he was a council member representing the area.

Miss Hobson said panel members presented recommendations to the mayor on June 4 and received Mrs. Rhee’s resume on Tuesday — the same day Mr. Fenty made his official announcement.

She said the administration has complied with the legislation because the panel still received Mrs. Rhee’s resume before the council begins her confirmation process.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and one of two council members who voted against the takeover, said Mr. Fenty may have made a “misstep” by creating a gray area with how he sought to fulfill the requirement.

“The issue should be on her qualifications,” Mr. Mendelson said. “But I don’t blame people for being upset.”

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, noted that the panel received Mrs. Rhee’s resume well before most members were even informed of her selection.

“I still don’t have it,” Mr. Graham said yesterday. “They’ve been treated superbly compared to the rest of us.”

Mr. Graham, who interviewed Mrs. Rhee yesterday, said that the new chancellor has a record of service to the District through her nonprofit and that the council’s confirmation process will be used to determine her ability to lead the school system.

“I don’t want to get bogged down on what happened on this,” Mr. Graham said. “I think she’s got a record that we can examine to determine whether or not [she will have] future success.”

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