Two Jobs: Chief and Chancellor

The District of Columbia is in the process of losing two very high-profile, charismatic and effective leaders.

That would be Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier, who are both retiring. Lanier has been in the chief’s chair since 2007. Henderson has been chancellor since 2010, taking over after a turbulent turn by Michelle Rhee.

Both retirements came about voluntarily and without controversy — Lanier actually left to take on a big national job as chief of security for the National Football League — and both positions have been filled with interim leaders. But it’s fair to suggest that Mayor Muriel Bowser and city officials ought to be in long-term reflective mode before filling these very critical positions.

Henderson and Lanier were what you might considers stars, each in her own area of expertise. They were big personalities, comfortable in the spotlight, effective under pressure and, with some exceptions, personally popular with the public.

That doesn’t mean that the mayor should necessarily be looking to replicate the personalities and styles of Henderson and Lanier. Henderson, for instance, was effective because she was, in terms of style, not Michelle Rhee — although Rhee was her mentor and she continued Rhee’s policies of school reform. Henderson could warm up a room in ways that Rhee, more combative and sometimes seen as arrogant in the way she engineered wholesale firings of teachers, could not.

Still, issues remain to be solved; while test scores have gone up, they have not uniformly gone up, creating a learning gap that is about facilities, resources and economic issues in a city that’s undergoing sizable gentrification. That almost half the city’s public schools are charter schools is a fact the implications of which have yet to be properly measured. A fresh look from the outside — in other words, by someone not from the local school leadership — may be called for.

Lanier was effective throughout the city. Her approach to community policing was lauded by the public at large, if not by all of it. It was a policy not without its problems, but the District’s police force did not experience the kinds of crises that other cities did in the age of cameras and tense, sometimes violent eruptions between the police and communities (as in Dallas, Cleveland, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Ferguson, Baltimore and the like).

The search for Lanier’s replacement seems to be focused on the D.C. department, which may be a smart move. Someone who knows the department’s ins and outs, its personnel, could be a good fit in these times. Such a person may be better able to repair Lanier’s fraught relationship with a portion of the police union, which fought battles with her over deployments, policy and promotions, and deal with the issue of a force that appears to be undermanned.


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