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Montgomery County's Jerry Weast will be a hard act to follow

Wednesday, August 25, 2010; A18

IF ANYONE has earned the right to retire from a job well done, it is Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. For 11 years he has led Maryland's largest school system with vision, courage and sheer hard work. Nonetheless, we can't help but be saddened by his decision or wonder why the school board didn't do more to try to keep him.

Mr. Weast announced Tuesday that he will step down at the end of the 2010-11 school year, ending one of the longest runs, nationally and locally, of a school superintendent. Board of Education President Patricia O'Neill aptly called it a "bittersweet" moment for Montgomery County given Mr. Weast's extraordinary record and what surely will be the challenge to replace him. Today, it is almost hard to recall what kind of school system Mr. Weast took over in 1999. Montgomery schools enjoyed a national reputation for excellence but, as Mr. Weast would soon make uncomfortably clear, only certain students -- the white and prosperous -- benefited.

It was, Mr. Weast told us, "the worst kind of racism because . . . low expectations were institutionalized." Before "achievement gap" became part of the national lexicon, Mr. Weast focused attention on the glaring discrepancies between what was expected of white and minority students. He shamed Montgomery into recognizing that there were two school systems and, more important, he was able to rally support for change. New resources were pumped into what Mr. Weast had identified as the red districts and, even as Montgomery underwent tremendous demographic changes, there were gains in student achievement across the board. Of all the system's accolades, perhaps the most telling is African American and Hispanic students' record participation in and performance on Advanced Placement exams.

Mr. Weast would not have been able to succeed if he tried to please every political constituency, and his single-minded determination made enemies. Over the years, there was a change in the membership of the school board that had hired and backed him; only one current member, Ms. O'Neill, was seen as wanting him to stay on. Given the fiscal straits that complicate school reform, it's unfathomable that the rest of the board seemed more than willing to let Mr. Weast depart.

Unquestionably he leaves Montgomery schools on a firm foundation. We hope the school board that will be charged with picking a new superintendent, to be determined by the outcome of this year's election, will choose someone who will build on Mr. Weast's work and, like him, will never let political niceties get in the way of what is right for children.

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