A day after the sudden resignation of Montgomery County’s schools chief, some in the community had pointed questions for the elected officials who supported his departure, and others wondered about the path ahead for Maryland’s largest school district.
Many said they were stunned by how quickly Superintendent Joshua P. Starr would be leaving; though he is under contract through June 30, the school board announced Tuesday that Starr will step down on Feb. 16, following board deliberations about his reappointment. Starr needed votes from five of eight board members to keep his job and reportedly did not have majority support.
Instead, the board said it would begin a national search for a new superintendent as soon as possible, with hopes to appoint a new leader by July 1.
“I think right now parents are surprised,” said Frances Frost, president of the countywide council of PTAs. “I would still like to know what were some of the board’s concerns about renewing his contract. Are they thinking of going in a different direction, or were they thinking he was not making progress?”
Board members have not given reasons for the parting of ways with Starr. According to county officials who spoke to The Washington Post anonymously because they were describing private conversations, there was not one issue or crisis that led to Starr’s fall. Instead, a series of perceived missteps aggravated an underlying concern about whether Starr, who took over the job in 2011, could deliver on changes the board felt were needed.
Some education advocates, such as Byron Johns, chairman of the education committee of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP, voiced disappointment.
Johns said he believes Starr has been committed to equity and that he does not think lack of progress on the achievement gap was the major reason for his eroded support.
“While we may all want to have seen more progress in terms of closing the gap, I don’t by any stretch think it all could be laid at his doorstep,” Johns said. “These are complex societal problems, and they require persistent effort.”
Many educators found Starr’s sudden exit unsettling, said Valerie Coll, a third-grade teacher at Flora M. Singer Elementary School in Silver Spring, who stressed that it was important to know why the board did not support Starr.
“It left all of us, who still have a job to do, with the feeling of how is this best serving the interests of the students? How is this best serving the interests of the teachers? How is this best serving the community?” she said.
Coll said she combines academic rigor with social-emotional learning in her classroom — a focus of Starr’s — and wonders whether “that piece is going to be lost.”
“This is a personnel decision that just doesn’t affect one person,” she said. “It affects a whole system.”
Others suggested the change in leadership could be more promising.
Merry Eisner-Heidorn, a longtime PTA leader and activist on school bell times, said she thought the board appeared to give the matter a lot of thought and came together despite divided views. The board voted unanimously to approve the separation agreement. She said Starr’s tenure had its shortcomings.
“I didn’t see the rubber meet the road,” she said. “I didn’t see action behind his words.”
Montgomery County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said he has heard from parents anxious about the change and has no doubt the school system is “going to continue to be very, very good.”
“The task now is to move on and identify a really great superintendent,” he said. “We should all be looking forward, not looking back.”