Most Montgomery County school board members are expressing support for renewing the contract of Superintendent Jack R. Smith, saying they would like him to lead Maryland’s largest school system for another four years.
Smith, 61, took the helm in July 2016 and recently began the final year of his contract, sparking questions about his plans for the future and the depth of his support from the school board that would reappoint him.
Smith said in a statement that he has not decided whether to ask for a new contract but enjoys the work, adding that he wakes up in the morning feeling committed to ensuring all students have the chance to “unlock their full potential.”
“I am quite happy working in Montgomery County on behalf of the 164,000 students in our schools,” Smith said.
Six of the school board’s eight members — Shebra L. Evans, Patricia O’Neill, Judith Docca, Brenda Wolff, Rebecca Smondrowski and student Nate Tinbite — said during interviews with The Washington Post that they support the superintendent’s reappointment.
Board members Jeanette E. Dixon and Karla Silvestre did not weigh in, with Dixon noting that Smith had not yet asked to stay on and Silvestre saying that she was not ready to discuss the topic.
Under state law, Smith must notify the school system by Feb. 1 if he is seeking another term, and the board must vote by March 1.
The broad support for Smith follows a year marked by concerns about grade inflation, student absenteeism, the possibility of school boundary changes and the handling of sexual assault allegations at school.
School system officials were criticized for their response to a locker-room sexual assault case, which led to criminal charges against six junior-varsity football players at Damascus High School. An outside law firm is examining reporting protocols, school procedures and other reports of bullying, sexual assault or hazing, along with broader issues involving sports culture.
Smith’s supporters laud the schools chief as data-minded and focused on improving the success of the high-performing system’s most vulnerable students, including its growing number of students in poverty and English-language learners.
They also cite efforts to expand prekindergarten, language learning and career education programs.
Evans, president of the school board, underlined Smith’s focus on success for all, including an initiative to lengthen the school year at two high-needs elementary schools and an online “equity accountability” system that allows a detailed school-by-school look at student achievement by race and poverty.
“I’m very pleased with the work he’s been able to do, meeting the needs of all of our students,,” Evans said.
Smith’s backing from the board comes in stark contrast to the 2014-2015 school year, when support waned for Joshua P. Starr, as his contract as superintendent neared its end. Lacking sufficient votes for reappointment, Starr stepped down in February 2015.
Starr’s departure touched off questions about the board’s decision-making process and was followed by an unsuccessful superintendent search in spring 2015. Larry Bowers, the longtime chief operating officer, agreed to step in as interim superintendent for a year.
Montgomery’s search for a superintendent resumed in fall 2015, leading to Smith’s selection in 2016. He earns $290,000 a year — less than his counterparts in some neighboring systems, more than in others.
“I absolutely would support his contract being renewed,” said Wolff, a first-term board member. “I believe he has instituted some things we need to see through.”
Docca, a longtime board member, said she appreciates his data analysis and leadership qualities.
“He’s really very sincere, and he’s really trying to work on the concerns we have,” she said. “He’s very open. He’s very serious about all of our students succeeding.”
Smith’s mantra has been “all means all,” referring to the need to do well by each student in the large, diverse system. Montgomery’s enrollment is 31 percent Hispanic, 28 percent white, 22 percent black, 14 percent Asian and 5 percent multiracial. More than 50,000 students come from low-income families.
O’Neill, the board’s vice president, said continuity is important and recalled the period around Starr’s exit as “wrenching for the community.”
“Jack has brought stability, but he’s also brought a focus on data-driven decision-making and also on the [achievement] gap,” she said.
Fred Azcarate, a father of three in Takoma Park, said he was surprised and “a little disappointed” to hear school board members may have already made up their minds about Smith. The board should closely examine Smith’s three-year tenure and his effect on school performance, while also soliciting comment from teachers, parents, students, administrators and community members, Azcarate said.
“It’s worth taking another look to ask, ‘Are we doing the best we can for our kids?’ ” he said.
Jennifer Gross, a longtime county advocate on sexual abuse prevention issues, said she had high hopes when Smith began and has been deeply disappointed, citing as one example a lack of supervision, safeguards and proper reporting related to the incident at Damascus High.
“He has talked about transparency and the safety of children,” she said. “I don’t see his words match his actions.”
Smith issued his statement about not having decided whether to pursue a contract renewal following inquiries from Bethesda Beat and The Post, schools spokesman Derek Turner said.
When Smith arrived in Montgomery in 2016, he described himself as “more of a rock than a rock star,” and pledged he would be steady, thoughtful and action-oriented. He called tackling the achievement gap “a moral imperative for the community.”
He was previously interim state superintendent of schools and a superintendent in Southern Maryland’s Calvert County.
Tinbite, who started his term as the student board member in July, called Smith “the best superintendent we’ve had in a very long time,” saying he appreciated “the programs and the work that he’s done.”
The countywide conversation about the system’s leadership is only beginning.
Byron Johns, education chair with the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP, credited Smith for more effectively tackling the achievement gap by making data more accessible to educators and the public “down to the school level, where people can be held more accountable.”
That approach will help the school system look more critically at resource allocation and the effectiveness of instruction, he said.
“I believe what Jack has done is transformative,” Johns said.
Latino community leader Diego Uriburu was similarly enthusiastic, saying he supported Smith’s contract renewal “100 percent” because Smith had been fearless in showing “the true inequities in the system.” Smith’s initiatives, he said, will benefit all students, particularly “the black and brown and poor,” narrowing long-standing achievement gaps.
Andrew Ross, a parent and community activist in Gaithersburg who follows school issues, said while Smith has a tough job, he did not believe Smith had accomplished “much at all” and would not recommend the schools chief remain.
Ross pointed to concerns about grade inflation, inadequate efforts to relieve school crowding and the trend toward offering only honors courses in core subjects at many county high schools.
“He’s seemingly trying to gloss over big issues to avoid having to solve them,” he said. Four years on the job is plenty of time to start making progress, he said.
“It’s certainly more time than a bad baseball manager gets if the team loses,” Ross said.