The D.C. inspector general investigated how a top official in the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser was able to bypass the school lottery normally required of parents and have her child placed in one of the District’s most sought-after public schools, according to people with knowledge of the investigation.
Courtney Snowden, Bowser’s deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity, was examined in a probe that delved into the circumstances in which Snowden’s son was enrolled at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, a school with a waiting list of more than 1,000 families, the people said. They said that the allegations date to summer 2015, a period now known to have spawned a broader investigation into misconduct by former D.C. Public Schools chancellor Kaya Henderson.
Inspector General Daniel W. Lucas announced in a letter to the D.C. Council last month that Henderson “failed to act impartially and gave preferential treatment to certain District government officials and members of the public” by placing their children in schools outside the lottery system.
Lucas has refused to name the parents who received preferential treatment, and it is not clear whether the inspector general ultimately determined that Snowden was among them.
However, investigators were informed during the course of interviews with multiple District employees that Snowden said she planned to bypass normal channels to ensure that her child got a seat in a desirable school, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case. The investigators were also told that Snowden boasted of her personal relationship with Henderson, they said.
Snowden’s child had attended a private school before he started at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan in the 2015-2016 school year.
In response to questions from The Washington Post, Snowden said by email that she was “thankful to have the Chancellor’s discretion in understanding my son’s unique needs.” She said discretionary transfers such as the one Henderson used in her case are “an option available to every parent.”
“My entire career I have fought to ensure that every child has access to high quality public schools no matter their income or Zip code,” Snowden said. She declined to address specific questions about the investigation.
Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Bowser (D), said that the mayor had not been informed by the inspector general which government officials Henderson showed favoritism toward and had not asked for their names. He said Snowden had not told the mayor that the inspector general was investigating her son’s school placement.
In a statement, Harris acknowledged that Snowden received a discretionary transfer but said there was nothing improper about it.
“Courtney Snowden is an outstanding public servant who has taken on the critical task of ensuring that economic opportunity is available to all District residents,” the statement said. “The opportunity to petition the school chancellor for a waiver is available to all District parents. Deputy Mayor Snowden did what any parent would do by pursuing every available option when her child faced a challenge.”
Henderson, who stepped down as chancellor last year, did not respond to requests for comment. When the inspector general announced his findings to the council last month, Henderson said in a statement that she stood by her actions and had “made a very limited number of discretionary placements for students when extraordinary circumstances applied.”
The scrutiny of one of Bowser’s top appointees over allegations of preferential treatment in the District’s notoriously stressful school-placement process could shed light on what has so far been a secretive probe into a potentially high-octane scandal at the heart of the public-school system in the nation’s capital.
Henderson led a school district with a wide variety of education options undergirded by a supposedly impartial school-enrollment process. Designed to ensure equal access to the city’s best public schools regardless of a family’s address, bureaucratic savvy or political clout, the school lottery is required for any families wishing to enroll children in schools outside their neighborhood. The District’s lottery has been touted as a national model of fairness in assigning students to public and charter schools.
Few aspects of local government touch District families’ lives more directly. Council offices are flooded with calls from exasperated parents each spring after lots are drawn.
The admission rates for the city’s most desirable public schools rival those of the nation’s most selective colleges. Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan received 1,101 applications for 73 open slots in the upcoming school year. The school east of Union Station on Capitol Hill, covering pre-K through eighth grade, has 1,028 families on its waiting list.
Although the chancellor can make special student placements outside the lottery system, that power is supposed to be used in rare circumstances when a transfer “would be in the best interests of the student” and “promote the overall interests of the school system.”
Harris said protocols had been put in place so that the chancellor’s power to make special school placements was reserved for “instances such as when a child’s safety demands it or for military families moving into the District.”
The inspector general has made public a one-page letter summarizing his findings but has refused to release the underlying report that describes how Henderson misused her authority — a departure from typical investigations where detailed reports are circulated to council members and posted on the inspector general’s website.
Jaime Yarussi, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Inspector General, said the office was trying to protect the children involved.
Yarussi said the report had not even been shared with council members. Asked whether it would be, she said, “The IG has not made that decision.”
The inspector general examined seven school transfers by Henderson, according to an official familiar with the investigation.
Lucas wrote in his April 12 letter that his office had referred its findings, along with a recommended course of action, to the mayor on Feb. 10.
In response, the letter states, the administration informed current schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson that his authority to place students outside the lottery “is very limited, and must be used in an impartial manner, taking care not to show favoritism.”
Snowden, a resident of Northeast Washington, was tapped by Bowser in April 2015 to serve in a position the mayor said was created to foster more opportunities for those left behind by the District’s booming economy.
Before becoming deputy mayor, Snowden was a principal at the Raben Group, a public-affairs and lobbying firm. She ran unsuccessfully for an at-large council seat in 2014. In an interview with The Post in October 2014, she said a desire to improve the public-school options available to District parents was what drove her into the race.
“Looking for public school options for my son has been really difficult, particularly in Deanwood where I live. I had to make some really tough choices about where to send my son to school,” she said. “I entered the lottery, and we just couldn’t get into the good ones. People are hungry for excellent options.”