By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
The Montgomery County school board unanimously approved a third four-year term yesterday for Jerry D. Weast, who already ranks among the longest-serving superintendents in the nation's large school systems.
Although the contract extension was widely expected, it served as a powerful reminder at a turbulent time that most Montgomery parents and their elected representatives still agree with Weast, 59, that he is the best person for the job of holding together Maryland's largest school system.
"I've seen it through snipers. I've seen it through 9/11. I've seen it through every event that could happen in this community," Weast said, reflecting on his eight-year tenure.
Some newer board members, who played no part in his 1999 hiring, faced relentless pressure to vote against renewing his contract. The past few months have ranked among the most contentious of his administration, with controversy raging over sex education, special education and high school graduation venues.
Admirers credit Weast with effectively balancing the interests of the county's haves and have-nots, attending to language and poverty needs in the eastern swath of the county while simultaneously managing highly organized parent groups in affluent Bethesda and Potomac, sometimes on the same day.
Weast credited his team, and himself, with overseeing an era of rising test scores in a school system that is growing more racially diverse. Few school systems accomplish that feat, he said, because of the enduring achievement gap between white and Asian students on the one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other.
"Find me another one, because I'd like to see it," Weast said, after accepting the board's offer yesterday morning. "And I've studied the top 100 school systems."
His initiatives -- full-day kindergarten, Advanced Placement study, accelerated mathematics instruction -- have generally yielded rising scores for all, although wide racial disparities remain. His reforms have produced a cohort of students, affectionately known as "Jerry's kids," who entered the system under his watch and are now in middle school.
"We will at least get Jerry's kids into our high schools," said board member Stephen N. Abrams (Rockville-Potomac), one of two sitting board members who helped hire Weast. "And that's significant, because they are the markers, they are the measures, of what these reforms are all about."
But Weast also has legions of critics. Some oppose his handling of a particular academic community, such as special education or the gifted, and others say he has not adequately served the burgeoning population of black and Hispanic students.
"I know that you have many detractors out there who have written me e-mails and sent me faxes not to support you," said Christopher Barclay, the newest board member, appointed late last year. He said he thought about the "uncomfortable conversations" that lie ahead for the board and superintendent, about race and class and the meaning of academic excellence, and he concluded: "I don't think there's anybody else out there."
With Weast's contract settled, the leadership of the region's three largest school systems is secure, at least for now. Superintendent John E. Deasy's four-year contract in Prince George's County runs to 2010. Fairfax County's Jack D. Dale is also contracted until 2010. Weast will work through mid-2011 at a salary of $239,754, under the same terms as his previous contract. He did not request a raise.
Loudoun County Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III, who has served since 1991, has the longest tenure of any schools chief in the region. Weast will be the second Montgomery superintendent since the 1950s to serve more than eight years; Homer Elseroad served from 1964 to 1975.
Weast's reappointment came on one of the busiest days of the year for the school board. Board members approved a $1.98 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. They are seeking a 7.4 percent spending increase from the County Council, which will set the final figure.
The school board also approved labor agreements with its three employee associations, with raises across the board of 4.8 percent in fiscal 2008, 5 percent in 2009 and 5.3 percent in 2010.