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Montgomery County votes to hire its first Black woman as superintendent

Monifa McKnight was approved by the Montgomery County school board to be the district's next superintendent. (Montgomery County Public Schools)
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Montgomery County voted to hire its first woman as schools superintendent — an African American educator who was a leader during the pandemic — a milestone in Maryland’s largest school system and another marker of its ever-increasing diversity.

Interim superintendent Monifa B. McKnight, 46, won unanimous approval from the eight-member county school board at a Tuesday meeting. She has been described as one of four finalists in a diverse group of candidates.

McKnight is expected to become the district’s second African American leader, following Superintendent Paul L. Vance, at the helm from 1991 to 1999. Her appointment is contingent on successful negotiations on a four-year contract and support from the state superintendent.

Brenda Wolff, president of the school board, called the appointment historic and noted that it comes during Black History Month, in a building that in the 1950s served as the school system’s only high school for Black students.

She said that McKnight, who has worked in Montgomery County for two decades, has the experience and vision to meet challenges ahead and help all students reach their potential. Still, she acknowledged that the system of 160,000 students has struggled amid the intense strain of the pandemic.

“It has been a rough two years,” she said. “I say we have to let the healing begin, and it starts today.”

As interim superintendent, McKnight presided over the district as it was engulfed in turmoil when winter break ended and the omicron variant was surging. Worried parents and teachers wanted coronavirus testing to precede a return to school, which did not happen. Others asked for the option of temporary remote learning, which was eventually allowed.

Her administration stumbled as it navigated the crisis, starting with one approach, halting it after state officials objected, then moving on to another. McKnight apologized to the community at one point, saying she was sorry for any stress caused by problems in communication about changing covid guidelines, disruptions from bus staffing shortages, and snow closures and delays.

As the upheaval went on, the teachers union voted no confidence in how the school board and McKnight were managing the surge, and the union for administrators and principals sent a letter saying the system lacked an effective plan and had “never been in such a crisis state.”

Afterward, the issue of race was raised by Black pastors who alleged in a sharply worded letter that McKnight was being vilified in a political attempt to destroy a professionally qualified woman of color. They said a string of county and union leaders appeared to be using backdoor politics to publicly discredit her — a charge that the leaders rejected.

In remarks at the school board meeting — where her husband, son, mother and other family members looked on — McKnight’s voice broke as she spoke. “It is emotional because I don’t take this responsibility lightly,” she said. “I care for the children in the school system as I do for my own.”

She said she was “absolutely humbled and honored” to be chosen, particularly as many students are struggling with trauma “in a way that we have never seen before.” She acknowledged the toll on staff, who have gone “above and beyond in every way possible,” and parents, who are enduring difficult changes.

“Every time we have had to pivot, the families have had to pivot,” she said.

School superintendent decision nears in Montgomery County, as issues of race arise

With 209 schools, Montgomery County is among the nation’s largest school systems, with an operating budget of nearly $2.8 billion. Its student body is 33 percent Hispanic, 25 percent White, 22 percent Black, 14 percent Asian and 5 percent multiracial — far different than the mostly White system of years ago.

Jennifer Martin, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the 14,000-member teachers union, said the school system has been more receptive to employee unions in recent weeks, though many educators still have concerns about covid response plans.

“We’re looking at this as a time for a fresh start,” she said. “We know that student success will be rooted in our ability to work collaboratively.”

Andrew Ginsburg, a father of two, said he was disappointed by the choice but had no idea how other finalists compared because the process was so secretive. Pointing to voices of frustration in recent weeks — teachers, principals, parents and students who staged a walkout — he asked: “This is the person who the Board of Education thought was best to lead us going forward? It’s kind of baffling to me."

Jennifer Reesman, a leader in the parent organization Montgomery County Families for Education and Accountability, said she believed the school board was hesitant to “make big, bold change,” especially with so much pandemic-related stress, and she wished McKnight well.

“Our community will do better if she is wildly successful,” Reesman said, adding that she hoped McKnight would lead strongly in “returning normalcy to the school system.”

McKnight has led the school system since June, following the retirement of Superintendent Jack R. Smith. Smith, who announced he was stepping down less than a year into his second four-year contract, cited medical issues with a grandson that resulted in a move to be with his daughter’s family in Maine.

Montgomery County school superintendent announces retirement

McKnight was Smith’s handpicked choice for deputy superintendent, and it was widely believed she would become a superintendent candidate when he left.

Byron Johns, education chair of the county branch of the NAACP, said he expects McKnight will continue to build on the work Smith did and accelerate the progress. She brings an even temperament to a job that can involve divergent interests, and stays focused on what’s best for kids, he said. “She has a certain amount of humility and is results-oriented,” he said.

McKnight’s annual salary as interim superintendent was $295,000, with her contract ending June 30. Negotiations for her new contract are expected to begin in coming days. One issue that may arise is her place of residence, which is in Prince George’s County. Her son, Ayden, who turned 10 on Tuesday, attends a public school there.

McKnight’s career in the school system included work as a middle school principal, for which she was honored in 2015 as Maryland Principal of the Year.

She later served as director for secondary leadership development programs, then went to Howard County as chief school management and instructional leadership officer before returning to Montgomery County as deputy superintendent in 2019.

Montgomery County taps interim leader for state's largest school system

Her education began in South Carolina, where she grew up, and she earned a bachelor’s degree from South Carolina State University. She holds a master’s degree from Bowie State University and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy from University of Maryland, College Park.