Harris takes leave of absence from D.C. job

Phyllis Harris, Oakland’s former special education chief, left OUSD last fall to head up the special education department in Washington, D.C. schools.

”It’s an opportunity to change the special education system in the national capital, which has some improving to do,” she told me at the time.

I don’t know what kind of changes Harris made, but the Washington Post reported that Harris took a sudden leave of absence this month, and that a spokeswoman for Chancellor Michelle Rhee denied a report in The Washington Teacher blog that Harris had been fired.

Two weeks before Harris took her leave, a federal judge reprimanded the D.C. district for failing to make progress on a court order to better serve children with disabilities, the Post reported.

The Post quoted U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman as saying, “My fundamental problem here is the lack of accountability, lack of coordination, lack of oversight, a lack of specific people who are rolling up their sleeves to get the job done.”

Oakland special education teachers and parents were fairly critical of Harris’s tenure in the district. Some said she lacked the experience needed to understand how to best serve children with special needs. She did dramatically reduce special ed costs, though.

Apparently, D.C. public school teachers also complained about staff shortages under Harris’s watch. I wonder if she’ll stay in the capital, or move to another school district.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • turner

    Look at OUSD. She did nothing there. What did they expect her to do in DC? Something?

  • John

    Was her hair that short while she was in charge of Special Ed Oakland? I thought it was longer, or at least that’s the impression I got from the few OPS Sp Ed colleagues who actually met her.

    Could we get a close up of her ear rings, ear buds, ear plugs, or whatever they be?

    P.S. Does anyone know if ahw really has a special relationship with a guy named “Ed?”

  • Sue

    If you dont hire enough staff, it’s really easy to lower costs. When older son started high school last year, there weren’t enough aides for his program, and my husband spent the first three days of the school year filling in for the missing one-on-one aide that our boy’s IEP requires him to have. If we’d gone ahead and sued the district over the situation, it would have cost a lot more than was saved by not paying the aide’s salary.

    The best thing I can say about Dr. Harris is that she never lied to us or behaved abusively, unlike her successor.

  • spedteacher


    I just want to say thank you for being the kind of parent who focuses on moving forward with your son’s program rather than punitive action. Your positive focus will benefit him more in the long run.

    I do find your comment about Dr Harris to be insightful and unfortunately, very true. I actually heard an inside rumor that Dr Harris took a health related leave; I would much rather it be performance related.

  • John

    Sue, she never lied to us (teachers) either. In fact she never said anything at all.

    I must say how impressed I am that your husband functioned as your son’s aide for several weeks. What a refreshing example of parents putting their child’s (student’s) need FIRST! Contributing your blood instead of demanding it out of that turnip when not (then) forthcoming was the right thing to do, personal resources and time (likely) marginally permitting.

  • Sue

    We were following the lead of other parents with kids in the same program. There was a *bunch* of families who all had grounds for legal actions, but chose to try first to resolve the problems without resorting to the courts.

    At least one family I know of is now going to have to go to court because Lisa Ryan-Cole is refusing to honor the settlement that Dr. Harris worked out with them. It would amaze and shock me if there aren’t more lawsuits in the pipeline. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible a year ago, but I believe the Spec Ed department is even worse off now than it was when Dr. Harris was in charge.

  • turner

    It’s because of selfless people like you and your husband that OUSD has been able to come this far. There are so many shining examples of parents stepping up to the plate when they don’t have to. You are an asset to your district.

    If only the leaders of OUSD understood and appreciated that.

  • Sue

    Thank you to everyone who has said nice things about my husband meeting our son’s needs. It’s so nice to hear, and I’m going to make sure he sees this feedback.

    But it’s beside the point – our family is focused on doing what’s right for our kids, first. What’s best for older son is having aide support full-time. My husband’s filling in when there weren’t aides available was a second-best solution to a problem that should never have happened in the first place. The third best option would have been keeping him home from school, because he simply couldn’t function without someone supporting him in his classes.

    Our boy needs to learn to work with other people, and not be dependent on a parent, so having his father supporting him in his classes wasn’t in his long-term interests. It was a very short-term stop-gap measure. We also had a number of school staff and district officials tell us that a parent on the campus in that capacity wasn’t legal.

    Like the other families in the situation, it didn’t make sense to take money from the department… It made sense to use the *threat* of lawsuits to pressure the department to get staffing. And Dr. Harris was responsive to those threats – we got the necessary aides hired.

    Now the department is ignoring threatened suits, and ignoring previous settlements. The department head is going to be costing the district a whole lot of money that doesn’t need to be wasted in this way. It could be going to supports and services for the kids who need it, and it would cost less than the eventual judgements against the district are going to cost all of us paying taxes.