Michelle Rhee's Mutual Resignation
That thumping noise you might have heard sometime on Wednesday of this week? Don’t fret. It was just the other shoe dropping in the great back-and-forth saga of the fate of DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee in the aftermath of the tumultuous Democratic Party Primary in which DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray prevailed over incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty.
Will she or won’t she? Will he or won’t he?
She won’t be…staying. And he didn’t…fire her. Word leaked Wednesday that Michelle Rhee would be resigning from her job as chancellor. This, apparently, after a number of telephone conversations between Rhee and Gray following a lengthy meeting between the two in which the issue of whether she would be staying, long-term or short-term, was not dealt with.
Gray did not fire Rhee, according to both. It was a mutual decision, as both of them belabored to the press at a conference called by Gray at the Mayflower Hotel the following day. The press conference was notable for its strangely muted tone, and for the debut of newly named interim chancellor Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s right-hand person at DPCS.
Gray’s choice of Henderson was a signal to the many voters, particularly in the predominantly white Wards two and three, that he would continue apace with school reform, which had been energetically, and often dramatically and controversially conducted by the energetic and sometimes undiplomatic Rhee. In the course of her stewardship of the DC schools, Rhee accomplished a lot, and fast: she closed schools, sometimes summarily, fired principals, improved the infrastructure, and twice conducted large firings of teachers. Under Rhee, test scores improved, and enrollment and graduation rates went up. In the course of over three years, she also became a national figure (Time Magazine covers, a major role in the documentary “Waiting for Superman”), and something of a poster child for proponents of national education reform.
But if there was lots of praise, there was also a deteriorating relationship with the poorer and black residents of the city who felt left out of the process—an anger that was mirrored in declining and troubling polls for Fenty, which signaled his eventual downfall. And Rhee was all but attached at the hip to Fenty, going so far as to campaign with him, and to criticize Gray for what she saw as not a lacking commitment to reform.
The dust has settled. The shoe dropped. And the official announcement came accompanied by a show of bonhomie, mutual support and certain hopefulness. All the principals—Fenty, Rhee and Gray—repeatedly said that the decision had been arrived at mutually. In fact, the word “mutual” was used so often that you expected a bell to ring, announcing the end of the day’s trading.
Rhee contended, as she does with most things, that her continued presence and the continued speculation about her future was not best for the children. “That’s what this has always been about,” she said. “Not the adults, but the children.
“We decided mutually that reform was best served and would continue strongly with this decision,” she said. “It was best for this reformer to step aside.”
Gray’s choice of Henderson, which meant that most of the top echelon of Rhee’s team would stay, gave him further bonafides as a reformer. “We cannot and will not return to the days of incrementalism,” Gray said.
Reporters, impatient and grumbling, were not convinced. “Was it that she didn’t want to stay, or you (Gray) didn’t want her to stay?” a television reporter asked. “Which was it?”
“It was a mutual decision arrived at over several conversations over the phone,” Gray said, and Rhee nodded in agreement.
While rumors had been out there, the news of Rhee’s sudden resignation still came as a surprise. As late as over a week ago, Gray told us that nothing was off the table, including the prospect of Rhee’s staying. The announcement of a mutual, shared decision appeared to adopt a balancing act in which Gray was not forced to fire her (or accept her), and Rhee did not appear to leave a job undone.
A national television reporter asked Fenty if it was possible that Rhee was forced out by pressure from the teacher’s union, which, in spite of signing a contract with Rhee, was bitter about two rounds of teacher firings. “It was a mutual decision,’ Fenty answered.
There was a lot of hugging going on—it was a regular love feast. Rhee hugged Henderson, Rhee and Gray hugged, Fenty and Gray hugged.
Only a few questions were allowed before the quartet left the podium. Rhee did not answer questions about her future, although it’s been widely speculated that she might take on a national role in the reform movement. Fenty continued to say that he would help mightily with the transition, that he would support Gray in every way.
Although not enough as it seems to appear. As of Wednesday, in at least one in a series of town hall meetings that Gray has been holding all over the city’s wards—especially Ward 3, where Fenty and Rhee are hugely popular—Fenty has declined Gray’s invitations to join him at the meetings. “Well, he invited me to all of them,” Fenty said. “It’s just been very busy.”
Apparently Fenty knew something was up. Asked how long he had known about the resignation, he said “A couple of weeks…well, maybe a week, I couldn’t tell you for sure.”
Fenty also declined to ask the people running a Fenty write-in campaign for the November 2 election to stop doing so. “It’s not my place to tell people what to do,” he said. “I’ve repeatedly said to them and everybody that I support Chairman Gray in the election and every other way.”