Montgomery County named Jack R. Smith, Maryland’s interim state superintendent of schools, as its schools chief Thursday, ending a year-long search for a leader to take over the 156,000-student system.
Board of Education members voted unanimously to hire Smith, 58, as superintendent of the district, the state’s largest. It faces challenges posed by surging enrollment, budget shortfalls and increasing numbers of children who live in poverty.
Smith, whose formal hiring is contingent on the negotiation of a four-year contract, would step into the top job a year after former superintendent Joshua P. Starr resigned amid reports of diminished board support.
Smith on Thursday described himself as a “true believer” in public education.
“I certainly am excited, nervous, humbled and very much looking forward to this opportunity and this effort to work on behalf of all of the children,” he said after the vote, speaking before an audience of educators, parents, students and reporters.
Board members voiced confidence that Smith would take the high-performing and increasingly diverse system to the next l e vel.
“His whole wealth of knowledge as a curriculum director, principal, teacher — state level, local — I think he just brings a lot to the table,” said the board president, Michael A. Durso. “He’s an academician. He’s going to be focused on the classroom. I really believe that.”
Smith’s appointment ends a year of uncertainty and a search that even Durso described as a “long, tortuous and interesting journey.” The board never publicly disclosed the reasons for its loss of confidence in Starr, but officials close to the matter cited concerns about insufficient progress in narrowing the achievement gap, a lack of a coherent vision for school principals and a personality that could be dismissive.
A first effort to find Starr’s successor last spring did not produce a new schools chief.
Over the year, the board ultimately considered the applications and credentials of more than 70 candidates nationally, and in recent months, it conducted 11 interviews with candidates with diverse backgrounds in medium and large school systems, officials said.
Smith became Maryland’s interim state superintendent in September after the departure of Lillian M. Lowery, who took a nonprofit education job in Ohio.
Smith previously was the state’s chief academic officer, a job he started in 2013 after more than a decade in Calvert County’s school system, which has 15,600 students. For seven years, he was superintendent of the Southern Maryland county’s system. He was Maryland’s Superintendent of the Year for 2013.
Smith left Calvert in 2013 with a year remaining on his second four-year contract. In a letter to the school community, he spoke of spending time with a new grandson and “some potential opportunities . . . that look intriguing.”
Calvert school leaders credited him at the time with leadership in improving state models for evaluating teachers and principals and increasing the number of Calvert students involved in Advanced Placement courses and other rigorous programs.
They also praised his efforts to modernize career and technology education programs and create new science, technology, engineering and math programs.
But many teachers were dismayed that Smith left with contract-provided financial benefits while their raises were not being funded, said Debbie Russ, former president of the county teachers union.
“They were just floored,” she said. “People are still divided about Jack.”
Earlier in his career, Smith was a teacher and a principal, working in Washington state, Japan and Thailand.
Smith is self-effacing, easygoing and dedicated, said Stephen Guthrie, superintendent of schools in Carroll County and a former president of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland.
“He is one of the most knowledgeable people in instruction and pedagogy that I know,” Guthrie said.
In his remarks Thursday, Smith said he would get to know the community in coming weeks and did not expect to come in and take everything apart.
Still, he said, “I won’t wait months or years to start talking about what needs to happen on behalf of children and students.”
He cited data showing that graduation rates vary widely across Montgomery’s 25 high schools and suggested that was an area to address.
State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), vice chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said Smith has worked well with policymakers since Lowery’s departure, making strong efforts to collaborate.
“He brings a knowledge of the state and how it works, and I think he is respected across the state, and I think that will help Montgomery County,” Pinsky said.
The Montgomery board’s vote ends a national search that started in February 2015 and failed to produce a new leader after its first wave of interviews. The board’s “preferred candidate” last spring — Andrew Houlihan, chief academic officer in Houston’s school system — abruptly withdrew from consideration.
Houlihan, then 36, said the job was “not the right fit for me, my family or the system as a whole.”
His decision came three days after his name was announced and as some in Montgomery questioned whether he was seasoned enough for the superintendent’s post.
The county’s school board then suspended the search and asked the interim superintendent, Larry A. Bowers, to stay in place for an extra school year. Bowers will retire this summer.
The board’s search for a more permanent superintendent resumed this school year, and in January, board members said they were pleased with the pool of applicants and voiced optimism that a candidate would be selected as early as March.
Montgomery school officials did not release names of the superintendent candidates or finalists. But the finalists included Jack Smith and Marty K. Smith, chief of staff for Fairfax County’s public school system, according to three people with knowledge of the selection process.
Marty Smith works under Fairfax Superintendent Karen Garza in the largest school system in Virginia.
He was previously an assistant superintendent in Fairfax, overseeing 22 schools in Herndon, Langley and McLean, according to biographical material posted online when he applied for a superintendent position in Illinois.
As word began to circulate Thursday about the board’s expected choice, some were disappointed that the next superintendent would not reflect the increasing diversity of the school system. Smith is the system’s third white male superintendent in a row, following Starr and Jerry Weast.
“I think it’s time that people be a little more bold with their leadership choices,” said Joseph Hawkins, a longtime activist on education issues in Montgomery.
“Our leaders should reflect the new demographics,” he said.
Durso, the school board president, said that diversity in leadership “was an important factor and remains an important factor, but we felt we made the best choice.”
Ovetta Wiggins and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.