Amid reports that Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr lacks the support he needs on the county school board to gain reappointment, the board took no official action Wednesday on Starr’s future with Maryland’s largest school district.
Board members met privately for two hours in an executive session that Starr attended Wednesday. Afterward, the board’s president, Patricia O’Neill, declined to comment on the discussion, citing confidentiality laws regarding personnel matters.
O’Neill said Starr, who is nearing the end of his first term, has not officially notified the board about whether he is seeking a new four-year contract to lead the 154,000-student district. He has until Sunday to do so.
“It’s part of a process, and we have not crossed the February 1 threshold, and sometime after we do, we’ll make an announcement and move forward,” O’Neill said.
Several county officials with direct knowledge of the deliberations have told The Washington Post that four of the board’s eight members have lost confidence in Starr’s leadership: Michael A. Durso, Jill Ortman-Fouse, Judith Docca and Rebecca Smondrowski. Starr needs at least a five-member majority to keep his job.
Ortman-Fouse said she could not comment because the issue is a personnel matter. The other three board members said to oppose Starr’s retention did not return calls and text messages seeking comment Wednesday.
No additional executive sessions are scheduled before Sunday, suggesting that the next move falls to Starr, who faces the possibility of asking to return but lacking the votes. Dana Tofig, spokesman for Montgomery schools, said Starr was not available to address the matter Wednesday.
The county officials who disclosed the breakdown of board votes — and spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to freely address the personnel matter — said that Starr’s faltering support stems from a range of personal and policy-related differences he’s had with board members. They include an inability to communicate a clear vision to principals of the system’s 202 schools and a coherent strategy to address the academic achievement gap, the county officials said.
Board members have also mentioned that Starr had failed to forge effective relationships with them, the county officials said. Some of the members complained that Starr treated them with disdain or disrespect, the officials said.
Starr also lost standing, the county officials said, after showing his interest in the New York City schools chancellorship in 2013, after just more than two years in Montgomery.
The sudden uncertainty about Starr’s leadership in Montgomery came as a surprise to parents and elected leaders, leaving many with questions about what went wrong and who would fill the district’s top job if Starr departs.
Starr, 45, is paid a base salary of $264,002, under a contract that expires June 30.
Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said the board has every right to hold Starr accountable if it believes he has not met the expectations set out for him. But Berliner added that if the board has lost confidence in him and chooses not to renew his contract, it owes the public a candid explanation.
“They would need to explain their actions,” Berliner said.
From his vantage point, he said, Starr has done a credible job. He cited data released this week on improving graduation rates.
He said Starr “clearly has his weaknesses like anyone, but if the board believes his weaknesses are impeding the school system’s progress, the board needs to do what the board needs to do. It’s just not clear to me what the grounds are today.”
Starr has drawn criticism for his response to some high-profile problems, including widespread high school math final exam failures and the handling of allegations of abuse by teachers and staff. He has frustrated some parents with his position on high school bell times: He recommended an 8:15 a.m. start, then withdrew it because of concerns over cost and mixed community reaction. More recently, the board asked him to go back and find lower-cost options.
Frances Frost, president of the countywide council of PTAs, said Starr has his critics and his supporters, but she had not heard long-running complaints about leadership.
“I would like to hear more about the reasons if they choose not to renew his contract,” she said. “If he’s not doing what they want him to do, what is it they want done?”
Council member Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), chairman of the council’s education committee, said Starr’s departure right now would be inopportune and damaging to the limited — but demonstrable — momentum school reform has achieved in Montgomery on his watch.
“We’re very concerned about what the implications might be of switching and changing direction given the progress that has been made,” said Rice, who meets with Starr regularly in his role as committee chairman. Like Berliner, he cited the recent graduation rate report as evidence of that progress.
Rice also said that Starr has improved his level of transparency and has been willing to collaborate with council members. He said that he and Starr recently set a series of community forums on the schools budget to explain spending decisions and the impact of state cuts.
Criticism of Starr surfaced publicly in mid-January when retired principal Jeanette Dixon, a 30-year district veteran, wrote a public letter to board members questioning his focus, vision and leadership.
“The education of our children does not have the luxury of four more years of non-progress,” she said.
Dixon asserted that Starr had not been effective on a range of issues: budget priorities, staffing to implement discipline guidelines, strategies to narrow the student achievement gap. Morale is low, she said, saying school leaders do not feel free to say what they think. “It is all about protecting the MCPS brand,” she wrote.