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WASHINGTON (AP) — A former District of Columbia schools chancellor has been censured by the city's ethics board for soliciting a six-figure contribution from a company that was doing business with the school system.
The investigation of former chancellor Kaya Henderson, who stepped down in September, was launched in May after The Associated Press reported that she had asked major contractors to give money to a gala honoring teachers.
Among the companies she solicited was the city's troubled food-service contractor. The AP reported that Henderson asked Chartwells for a $100,000 contribution to the gala, just weeks after the company was accused in a whistleblower lawsuit of cheating the school system out of $19 million and serving spoiled food to city schoolchildren. Chartwells ended up making two $25,000 contributions to the event.
Several other companies that do business with the city also gave money to the gala, including Sodexo, a Chartwells rival that took over the food-service contract this school year. In response to questions from the AP, the school system acknowledged that Henderson had solicited contributions from Sodexo and other contractors.
City ethics rules prohibit city employees from soliciting money, including charitable contributions, from companies that do business with the city. The rules are meant to prevent the appearance of "pay to play" politics in which contractors get preferential treatment in exchange for gifts or campaign contributions.
Henderson agreed to the censure, which is largely symbolic because she's no longer in office. The board can fine city officials up to $5,000 for violations but chose not to issue a fine. Still, the episode complicates the legacy of Henderson's 5 ½ years at the helm of city schools, during which she built a reputation as a national leader in urban education reform.
Henderson, who did not immediately return a message seeking comment, told the ethics board that she did not realize her actions were prohibited, according to a settlement agreement that was reached last week.
"The chancellor did not appreciate the distinction between soliciting funds from ordinary businesses that wanted to assist the District government and those that might be considered prohibited sources," said Darrin Sobin, the city's ethics director.
John Davis, who was one of Henderson's deputies, is serving as interim chancellor while Mayor Muriel Bowser searches for a permanent replacement.
Under Henderson, city schools saw gains in enrollment, standardized test scores and graduation rates. But that progress masked huge achievement gaps between white students and non-Asian minorities. Those gaps remained stubborn and grew in some cases. The improved test scores also coincided with the city becoming wealthier and the white population increasing.
One of Henderson's major initiatives was a rigorous evaluation system for teachers that's based, in part, on their students' standardized test scores. Henderson fired hundreds of teachers who received poor evaluations. Those who get the best marks are honored at the annual gala, known as Standing Ovation for D.C. Teachers, which is held at the Kennedy Center.
Chartwells, the food-service contractor, ended up paying $19.4 million to settle the whistleblower lawsuit, which alleged that the company had cheated the city through price-gouging and fraud, deliberately stockpiled food and allowed it to rot, and served spoiled food in cafeterias.
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