By Michael Birnbaum
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 8:37 PM
Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast announced Tuesday that he will retire in June, ending an 12-year run and initiating an election-year discussion about the future of one of the country's largest and highest-performing school systems.
Weast set his sights on attacking the persistent achievement gap that separates white and Asian-American students from their black and Hispanic peers - and succeeded in narrowing it on many measures even as the county became significantly poorer and more diverse. At the same time, the school system's top performers have continued to make gains, winning the system national accolades.
Weast's announcement will undoubtedly change the dynamic of an election year in which many school board and County Council seats are up for grabs. A national search will begin in December, after the election is resolved, and Weast's successor will have to strike a balance between being a caretaker and a visionary in straitened fiscal times.
"He's one of the finest superintendents in the country," said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators and a former superintendent in Fairfax County. "What Jerry has done is something that few superintendents do in a system as complex and the size of Montgomery." Still, Domenech said, Weast's successor can't passively imitate his policies and expect results.
Weast has been a forceful personality in Montgomery, and his departure might clear the air for a wider-ranging reevaluation of school system priorities, observers said. His long tenure has brought unusual stability to the system. The average tenure of a superintendent is three years. Since Weast arrived in 1999, Prince George's County has had five superintendents and the District six. His record also shows that given the right circumstances, a large, diverse school system can make progress with unified goals, although some disparities remain.
"We have the cooperation and the collaboration," Weast said Tuesday. "I'm confident that we'll continue to make progress."
Weast has been adept at navigating Montgomery politics, forging alliances with labor unions and a broad network of elected officials. One symbol of the close union relationship is an unusual peer-review program in which the school system identifies struggling teachers and then works with the union to either help them improve or dismiss them.Reform efforts
Early in his tenure, Weast had demographers divide Montgomery into a red zone in the east, designating schools with high proportions of low-income and minority students that he would target with extra resources, and a green zone in the west, home to the county's historically top-flying schools.
Because of the extra attention to the red zone, the share of black students in Montgomery who graduate with a passing score on at least one Advanced Placement test has doubled since 2000, and the percentage-point gap in reading pass rates for black and white students has narrowed from 32 points to 14. Last year, the county helped Maryland become tops in the nation in the share of graduates who passed at least one AP exam. And countywide SAT scores have increased to record highs this year, Weast said.
Weast's reform efforts filled a book, a 2009 Harvard study that is read by school systems across the country. And those efforts made the county into a national brand: An agreement signed in June with a major textbook publisher will take a curriculum that is under development and spread it across the country under the Montgomery name. The federal government recently awarded the county schools a $5 million grant to support the project.
Education experts said Weast's focus on the lowest-performing students is unusual for a school system in which a sizable proportion of children are doing well. It is even more impressive, they said, that the top-performing students continue to improve as efforts are concentrated on the lowest-achieving.
"A lot of suburban districts do not want to admit they have an achievement gap problem and go through all sorts of gymnastics to hide it," said Andrew Rotherham, a partner at D.C.-based Bellwether Education, which focuses on improving education for disadvantaged students. "Montgomery County has taken some admirable steps to address it on the low end. There's still a long way to go on that front."Problems and criticism
Some troublesome gaps remain on key indicators, including SAT scores and graduation rates. Disparities between groups have widened by those measures, although minority students in Montgomery outperform their peers nationwide. The performance of students with special needs also remains a problem, and several of the county's elementary and middle schools failed to meet federal benchmarks for that group this year.
Weast is not without critics. Some in the community contend that he often pretends to listen to others but ignores points of view that are not in line with where he wants to lead the schools.
"I've been disturbed that his focus has been on the national community instead of running the local schools," said Lyda Astrove, a frequent Weast critic and member of the watchdog group Parents' Coalition. Astrove, who is running for an at-large seat on the Board of Education, has been dissatisfied in her interactions with the county in obtaining special education services for her child. She said Weast had been quick to shut out people who disagreed with him.
Two other members of the Parents' Coalition are running for school board seats, four of seven of which are up for election this year.
Montgomery, the second-largest school system in the Washington region behind Fairfax County, will begin the school year with about 144,000 students. Board officials declined to discuss potential replacements for Weast, whose $217,000 salary and benefits package total just under $500,000 this year.
"We all knew this day would come," said Montgomery Board of Education President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). After the election, the board will hire a firm to find candidates, which could take three to six months, she said. The search will be made more difficult by the county's gloomy fiscal picture, as will the new superintendent's job.
"The new superintendent will not necessarily have the luxury of additional resources," O'Neill said.
School budgets have expanded under Weast, as has enrollment. But the County Council docked the school system's operating funds this year, and the overall operating budget dropped by 4.4 percent for fiscal 2011, to $2.1 billion. To compensate for the loss, class sizes are increasing by one student and other services have been trimmed.
School and county officials are bracing for another tough fight this year.
The past year also was a bitter one for school funding. The system's budget was cut - for the first time in memory - and at one point Weast threatened to sue the county. The exchange frayed some of Weast's alliances with key constituencies. More tension could be in store if the fiscal situation continues to deteriorate.
Weast was coy Tuesday about his plans but said that if he had his "druthers," he would work at a nonprofit organization. He might also take a break, he said.
"I'm old," Weast, 62, said. "I've been doing this since I was 28."