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Montgomery likely to pick superintendent who fits Weast's mold, experts say

Jerry D. Weast, who will retire at the end of this school year, has been superintendent of Montgomery County schools for 11 years and is among the nation's longest-serving school leaders.

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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010

Wanted: executive to run 144,000-student school district -- changing demographics, heavy parental involvement. Competitive salary, benefits.

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As Montgomery County begins considering a replacement for its outgoing schools superintendent, Jerry D. Weast, officials and education experts said Wednesday that the likeliest pick is someone who fits his mold: a traditional leader with experience running a big school system, but not someone who will upend the status quo.

Still, some members of the Montgomery school board, which will select Weast's replacement, expressed a desire for change, and the field is wide open with no clear front-runners. Weast announced Tuesday that he will retire at the end of his contract in June, and a community-wide discussion in the coming months about the direction of the county schools appears likely.

"It'll be a crowning accomplishment of someone's career to be the superintendent there," said Jack Jennings, president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. "It's probably not going to be a hotshot young reformer."

School officials said they planned to begin the search in earnest in December, after the four school board seats up for election have been resolved. They anticipate a national search lasting about six months. But discussions on the process could begin as soon as Thursday's school board meeting.

Weast will have spent 12 years as head of the high-performing district, an eternity in a job that usually spits people out after three years. He made his mark by concentrating on the persistent achievement gap that puts white and Asian American students on one trajectory and African American and Hispanic students on another. While he narrowed the divide on many measurements, the top performing students also improved during his tenure.

Experts said that simply continuing Weast's policies would not be a path to success, given the changing nature and complexity of the county. But his influence will loom large, no matter the new leader's policies, as more than 70 percent of county's teachers and 90 percent of its principals were hired on Weast's watch.

The Montgomery school board appears split between Weast supporters who want to hire someone in his mold and critics who want to try something new.

"I don't think there's huge need for change, of course," said the board's vice president, Christopher S. Barclay (Silver Spring). But the new head will have to do "more with less," he said.

Observers thought that even if the board opted for someone who would build on Weast's policies, the members would look for someone who included them more on decisions such as contract negotiations.

But another board member thought bigger changes might be in order.

"I certainly wouldn't rule out a nontraditional candidate, like a Teach for America alum," said Laura Berthiaume (Rockville-Potomac), who has been one of Weast's biggest critics on the board.

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