ROCKVILLE — Following Tuesday’s announcement of Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr’s resignation, some County Council members are calling for more transparency and clarity as the board looks toward a national search to fill the position.
The Board of Education announced Starr will resign on Feb. 16 following speculation about whether the board would renew Starr’s contract as the BOE discussed his contract in closed session.
MCPS Chief Operating Officer Larry Bowers will serve as interim superintendent until Starr’s four-year term ends June 30.
“While I’m not happy certainly at the way things have turned out, at the same time it is absolutely the board’s authority to move in a direction that they see fit. I am superintendent of schools, I hold no illusions about longevity in this job,” Starr said.
Starr would not comment on the reasons for his early resignation and said discussions about his leadership with the board were private and personnel matters. The board is not required by law to discuss his contract in closed session, but it has the option to.
Board President Patricia O’Neill would also not elaborate on the board’s specific reasons, but said it was for the school system’s “best interest.” She said she personally had a good relationship with Starr.
“The board made their statement and that’s all there is to say,” said MCPS Chief Communications Officer Brian Edwards after the press conference. “The board and superintendent made their agreement on how they’re moving forward and that’s how they’re moving forward.”
Looking forward to the hiring process, Councilmember Hans Reimer (D-At large) said it should be as public as possible, with the exception of a candidate who works in another jurisdiction and would not apply if the proceedings were public. But even then, Reimer said the board can make the criteria it uses part of a public discussion.
“The problem here has been the whole thing that happened with Starr has taken most parents by surprise and they weren’t aware that there was any particular problem and many people felt that he was doing a fine job. They wake up one day and find the board is deadlocked and he can’t get reappointed,” Reimer said. “There was never any real public opportunity to weigh in. It struck me the wrong way and I think a lot of people are frustrated that such a significant decision could be made without any real public dialogue. It’s time to sort of acknowledge that in the hiring.”
Reimer also said he was taken aback at the board’s decision and hopes next time the board makes their reasons much clearer.
“I’m surprised that he doesn’t have the support and then I’m really surprised that the people who are opposing him don’t have a strong enough reason to put out that anybody else can react to,” Reimer said. “When I found out, it was already over.”
In an exchange on Reimer’s Facebook, Council President George Leventhal (D-At large) said the interviews need to be confidential in order to make sure the most qualified people are willing to apply. He referenced the public’s negative reaction when they discovered Starr was a candidate for the New York chancellor job late in 2013.
“If the board wants to convene some sort of public goal-setting dialogue to hear people's input about what they want from a superintendent, that's fine. But in the end it will come down to an evaluation of the specific characteristics of individuals, and that will have to occur behind closed doors. I know there will be people who will object to that but it is the way most hiring decisions are made,” Leventhal wrote.
But Reimer said the public may have a right to know a superintendent is considering leaving and it might be okay if certain people decided not to apply because of it.
“Maybe just having openness is better,” Reimer said. “I have to think about that.”
Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D-4), who served on the board prior to her election to the council in 2010, weighed in on Leventhal’s side.
“I'm sure the BOE will welcome public input on what characteristics we want in the next superintendent – that is different from a public vetting of each candidate,” she wrote.
Councilmember Craig Rice (D-2), who chairs the education committee, said he understands the board had the option to discuss personnel matters in closed session, but said he chose to handle the replacement of former councilmember Valerie Ervin in open session when she resigned before her term was over.
“When it came to what we decided to do under my leadership as (council president) in establishing a new council member, we decided to make sure all those deliberations were public and televised,” he said. “It’s not for me to say what (the BOE) should have or could have done. All I can do is talk about...as council president how I believed we needed to operate.”
Rice also said there are a lot of questions about the reasons for the board’s actions and “folks are going to start and continue to ask questions and demand answers. We’re going to have to see what happens.”
Frances Frost, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations (MCCPTA) said she did not take issue with the closed session, but wanted to know the reasons for the board’s views on Starr going into the search for the next superintendent. Frost said MCCPTA plans to continue to emphasize equity in education.
“We’ve experienced a very positive working relationship with (Starr) and appreciated having our parents’ perspective included in various discussions,” Frost said. “We hope a new superintendent would be open and welcoming.”
According to the contract the board unanimously approved, MCPS will give Starr compensation and benefits through June 30, $46,583.96 for unused leave as per his original contract and health coverage through the end of 2015. Starr will also be able to continue to use his board-provided vehicle until March 31, but has to pay for gas and other use expenses after Feb. 16.
The contract also stipulates board members and Starr cannot make “disparaging remarks regarding the other.”
Rice said the early resignation is particularly difficult for the council going into the budget season not knowing which direction MCPS wants to go.
“I’m assuming we’re going in a different direction from where we have been before,” he said. “It’s very difficult for us as a council to really articulate support around something when I don’t really know what the direction is going to be for the next year.”
Rice said it would also be “confusing,” if the interim superintendent continues Starr’s direction because, after asking Starr to resign, that is presumably not the direction the BOE wanted.
Frost said the transition may have some effect on budget decisions, but Bowers is knowledgeable about the budget.
Bowers has worked for MCPS for 37 years and will fill out the rest of Starr’s term as interim superintendent. State Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery approved Bowers’ appointment on Tuesday afternoon.
O’Neill said the board will embark on a national search for the next superintendent and the first step will be to hire a search firm as soon as possible. As of Wednesday morning, MCPS spokesperson Dana Tofig said the board had not yet hired a firm.
In the past, teachers’ union Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has been part of the community interview team for semifinalists in the superintendent search, according to MCEA President Doug Prouty. Prouty said that will likely happen again this time and they will look for someone who is collaborative. He could not comment on the reasons for Starr’s resignation, but said they enjoyed working with him.
“It’s a sad day for the school system,” Prouty said, praising Starr’s focus on teacher evaluation systems based on more than standardized tests.
O’Neill said the transition will not affect the daily operations of the school system.
“While I know these types of transitions can be unsettling, I want to be clear. The district has been around for a very long time and it is bigger than any one person. It is a system made up of 23,000 employees and this truly is a great system,” O’Neill said. “That will not change.”