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Appearing in The Washington Post, June 10, 2004

Education Office Chief Resigning
Agency Was Criticized Over Meals Program

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2004; Page B01

C. Vannessa Spinner, the head of the D.C. State Education Office, has submitted her resignation after a controversial tenure and will leave her post at the end of June, city officials said yesterday.

Spinner's resignation was disclosed in an interview by Kelvin J. Robinson, chief of staff for Mayor Anthony A. Williams. It came as a surprise to elected city officials, including one who wrote the mayor yesterday demanding her removal because of problems in a summer program to give meals to needy children.

Spinner did not return calls or e-mails, but Robinson said she submitted her resignation to Williams (D) on June 1 and would be leaving June 30. He said administration officials are working on a transition plan for leadership of the agency.

Spinner has headed the State Education Office since shortly after it was created in 2000 to take over city education functions that are normally conducted by states, including ensuring an accurate count of students each year. The agency is also responsible for implementing a handful of federally funded nutrition programs, which have in recent years been repeatedly cited by the U.S. Agriculture Department for violations of federal regulations.

Spinner's admirers have praised her leadership, including efforts to improve special education. Her detractors have said that she allowed programs to flounder and left many chronically understaffed.

The D.C. auditor, the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. attorney have investigated improper employee activity in the agency under her leadership, and several employees have been forced to leave. The IG is also looking into whether federal funds have been used improperly.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) sent a letter to Williams yesterday asking for Spinner's removal, citing problems with the way her agency runs programs to feed the needy. Anti-hunger advocates had complained to the Williams administration that the education office has done insufficient planning for this summer's program to provide free meals to children, raising concern that some will go hungry.

Problems with last year's Summer Food Service Program prompted Williams to create a task force to recommend how the city can better use federal money to feed needy residents. But Mendelson and several panel members said task force recommendations issued in March have not been followed.

Mendelson said he was surprised to hear that Spinner had resigned -- but pleased that a transition to new leadership could begin.

" It's a good thing for all involved," he said. "Now we can move forward quickly with a new state education officer."

Williams said yesterday from California, where he is urging former Long Beach superintendent Carl A. Cohn to head the city's public school system, that Cohn would also be put in charge of the State Education Office if he takes the superintendent job. The mayor said Cohn has said he would want those additional responsibilities as part of being superintendent.

Spinner referred inquiries yesterday to Tony Bullock, the mayor's spokesman. This week, he disputed allegations that the office has poorly planned this summer's feeding program, set to begin June 21. He said officials expect to increase participation by 10 percent over last year.

" This program has been the focus of much attention from the mayor and his top staffers," Bullock said in an e-mail. "The employees who are actually on the front lines doing the work are dedicated to the task and they are determined to make the program a success."

The issue of leadership at the education office had been raised during the recent debate over whether Williams should be given control of the school system.

Said council member Adrian Fenty (D-Ward 4): "This is an agency that probably needs to go in a different direction. . . . The mayor has complete control over the State Education Office. People kind of say, 'If he can't manage this small part of the school system, how is he going to manage the entire system?' "

The summer food program is designed to feed about 42,000 students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches during the school year. Last summer, fewer than half were served.

Staff writer Jay Mathews in California contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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