D.C. City Council approves Ferebee as chancellor after a grueling confirmation process

Lewis Ferebee was officially confirmed as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system Tuesday, two months after leaving Indianapolis to pursue the job.

The D.C. Council confirmed Ferebee Tuesday, the final step in a process that began when he was nominated by Mayor Muriel Bowser last year. While serving as interim chancellor, Ferebee has gone on an outreach blitz in the district, winning a broad swath of support. At the same time, he has faced tough scrutiny from the press and lawmakers.

When Ferebee came to Indianapolis Public Schools from North Carolina five years ago, he was a relatively untested leader in his first role as superintendent. Over the course of his time here, he wooed state and local influencers who had been at odds with the district, and he transformed the school system into one built on collaboration with charter schools. At the same time, the ambitious young leader rose to national prominence, becoming a darling of charter school advocates.

Ferebee’s record in Indianapolis faced unflattering scrutiny during a nearly 10-hour hearing by the D.C. Council last month. But ultimately, he won the support of the council, including those who were critical during the hearing.

Ferebee’s community outreach and courting of local leaders appears to have paid off. Council member Charles Allen said that he spoke with community members about their priorities, and they include having a chancellor who is an “unapologetic champion” of neighborhood schools, someone with a focus on equity, and someone who could build trust.

“Every single thing that I went out and said I need to hear a new chancellor say, he went out and said,” Allen added.

The council also seems to be persuaded by Ferebee’s assurance that the partnerships with charter schools that were his signature policy in Indianapolis may not be the right fit for D.C.

“I’m not thrilled about some of the things that took place in Indianapolis,” said council member Kenyan McDuffie. But, he added, he had been assured that Ferebee is not aiming to replicate his strategy from Indianapolis in D.C.

Many in D.C. are still frustrated by the selection process for a new chancellor, but that was not held against Ferebee. Council member Elissa Silverman said students, parents, educators, and community members should have had a greater say in selecting a chancellor, instead of serving as a “rubber stamp” for the mayor’s nominee. But Ferebee has tried to address that tension, she said.

”He has been accessible and tireless in community engagement since he has been named the interim chancellor,” Silverman said. “In my mind, that shows some political savvy — something that was lacking in our last chancellor.”

The support Ferebee won from council members was a sharp contrast with the confirmation hearing they held last month when council members grilled him about his time in Indianapolis. They dug into academic issues such as declining passing rates on state tests, a growing gap between black students and their white peers, and the district’s graduation rates. Ferebee was also pressed about his handling of a three-year-old sexual abuse scandal after district staff failed to properly report a sexual relationship between a counselor and student.

One of Ferebee’s most notable initiatives also drew criticism. Innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but run by charter or nonprofit managers, were a focus for council members who did not want to see a similar approach in D.C.