Vince Gray to decide Michelle Rhee's future

(Photo: Associated Press)

Correction:

Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells wanted Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to stay on until the end of the 2011-2012 school  year since that was when her contract ended. That date was chosen because it coincides with the time the council is scheduled to review mayoral control of the schools.

UPDATED, 2:51 p.m. with more reaction from Gray in sixth graf, other adjustments.

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Long story short

Gray finally has to answer the Rhee question

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Now, he has to answer the question.

After months of dipping and dodging whenever the the District's highly polarizing schools chancellor was mentioned, Vince Gray will soon finally have to say what exactly he plans to do with Michelle Rhee.

Gray is already being pushed to retain the chancellor. At 2 a.m. Wednesday, the Washington Post's Robert McCartney posted a column saying Gray needs to keep Rhee to fulfill his promise of delivering 'One City.' And at least two councilmembers think he should do what he can retain Rhee until her contract expires at the end of the 2011-2012 school year. until the council reviews mayoral control of the schools at the end of the 2011-2012 school year.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells said the school system needed to be kept stable to assuage nervous parents who have begun returning their kids to District schools in recent years. The best solution, he said, was to keep Rhee on while Gray searched for replacement who better fit his leadership style.

"I think it should at least be a transition period," Wells said.

At a press conference today, Gray reiterated that he wouldn't announce any personnel decisions until after the general election. He said he had called Rhee, but had been unable to reach her and left a voice mail.

"We will talk," he said. "I'm looking forward to talking to her ... She and I will sit down ASAP."

When the Washington Post's Bill Turque, who originally broke the story about Wells and Cheh's suggestion, asked Gray about possibly keeping Rhee on, the chairman pulled yet another bob-and-weave.

"I'm sure I'll get a lot of ideas, and I'll listen to all of them," Gray said.

Gray's standard line during the campaign whenever Fenty or a reporter tried to nail him down on whether or not he would keep Rhee was to say he would meet with all the major appointees after the election and make a decision then. It's not clear when the soon-to-be-mayor plans on meeting with Rhee.

Though he has been vague about his intentions, during the campaign Gray has revealed his inclination to replace Rhee with a less polarizing administrator, repeatedly reminding voters that education reform doesn't hinge on one person and referring to Rhee as "your" schools chancellor when addressing Fenty during debates.

"To those who say you can't have both collaboration and reform, that they are mutually exclusive, I say you are wrong," Gray said in his victory speech last night. "And we're gonna prove it to you. Make no mistake. School reform will move forward in a Gray administration. And it'll be done in a holistic way, with a strong empowered chancellor who works with, with parents and teachers."

For her part, Rhee has said she couldn't work with a mayor who wouldn't back her the way Fenty has.

When asked earlier in the day yesterday if he thought some of Rhee's reform efforts needed to be rolled back, Gray said: "We'll address those issues in the aftermath of the election. I supported education reform, I want to continue with education reform. I think the effort to really work with our stakeholders really needs to be improved. The stakeholders really have not been effectively involved in the decision making."

Those stakeholders undoubtedly include the Washington Teachers Union, who provided foot soldiers for Gray's campaign and enthusiastically backed him. In the national press, the Rhee drama is often cast as pondering whether or not Gray will kowtow to the union by firing the chancellor.

Though Rhee campaigned for Fenty as a "private citizen" in order to not violate the Hatch Act, the Fenty campaign wasn't shy about using her as a political football, pointing out the day before the election that significant changes to her reform agenda could lead the District losing a recently awarded $75 million Race to the Top grant from the federal education department.

As an example of why stability is needed, Wells cites the plans Rhee had made with parents to improve middle schools in Ward 6. Young families are flocking to the area's elementary schools, and they hope to keep their children in DCPS as they grow older.

"It's extremely important that we assure them those plans are going forward, and not introduce any instability," Wells says. "They should not even be put on hold, they shouldn't even be 'Oh, we'll take a look at this.' We need to keep moving forward."

Gray has a broad education agenda beyond the Rhee question: He wants to expand pre-K options, eliminate the funding disparity between charter and traditional public schools, strengthen the District's new community college and reform the city's incredibly expensive special education system, all goals he can pursue regardless of the chancellor. But give the central role that Rhee played in Fenty's administration and during the campaign, Gray's decision about whether or not she will remain at the helm of DCPS is the one that is most anxiously anticipated.

—With reporting from @slarimer.

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