Who exactly does the Montgomery County Board of Education think it is working for?

County residents pay hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes to help fund the public school system. They elect the members of the board, too. Given that, it seems clear that the eight-person board owes the public a candid and detailed explanation — right now — about why the guy they brought in as superintendent in July 2011 as the worthy successor to the somewhat legendary Jerry Weast is no longer the right man for the job.

If you’re coming to this cold, here’s what’s going on: Four members of the eight-person school board have decided they do not want to give Superintendent Joshua P. Starr a new four-year contract, and it takes five to make it happen. Starr has until Feb. 1 to write the board a letter telling them he wants another term.

Why did the four members apparently come to this decision? Well, they aren’t saying. At least not to the public who elected them. They have decided that Starr’s fate is a “personnel matter” and county residents don’t get to know what’s going on. Why is deliberation about the status of a high-ranking public employee by public officials a secret personnel matter?

Starr was brought to the district at a time of enormous change and was charged with maintaining the luster on the gold-plated brand of the Montgomery County Schools. Demographics were changing — with a growing number of low-income and English-Language Learners (70 percent of whom don’t speak English at home) — and the state was pursuing several major school reform efforts at the same time, including the Common Core State Standards. Anybody who thought that the brand would not collect some tarnish was kidding themselves.

Starr, a believer in addressing the social and emotional needs of children as an integral part of the academic pursuit, took some public stands on issues on which most of his colleagues stood silent: He called for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing, recognizing the corrosive effect that testing was having on teaching and learning, and was opposed to using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. (Montgomery County is famous for its teacher evaluation system, developed under Weast, that gives no weight to standardized test scores. And for those who believe that adults can’t know how students are doing in school without test results, they can be reassured that Montgomery County students still take a mountain of standardized tests, despite Starr’s view.)

The Washington Post has learned that there are apparently several reasons some of the board members want to replace Starr. One is that they don’t think he has articulated a clear enough vision about how to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.

What that means exactly is unclear. Starr, when asked once in a hearing what he was doing specifically about the achievement gap, responded that everything his administration does is aimed at helping close that gap. What that means is that there is no single thing any superintendent can do to close the gap. There is no silver bullet. When Michelle Rhee became chancellor of Washington, D.C., Public Schools in 2007, she had a very clear vision of how to close the achievement gap — fire teachers and principals, evaluate them by student test scores and give merit pay to those who got high test scores. Today, the achievement gap in the District is as big as in any big city in the country.

The notion that any superintendent can “close the achievement gap” without help from health and counseling professionals outside the system and appropriate social policy is something of a fantasy, which, unfortunately, is one shared by many school reformers around the country today.

It’s worth noting that new data made public this week shows that the gaps in graduation rates between black and white students — and Hispanic and white students — have narrowed during Starr’s administration. (“But why should data get in the way of personal passions?” State Sen. Rich Madaleno, (D-Montgomery), who is vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee and an important advocate for county school funding, wrote on Facebook.) Starr does have a record of achievement, which he detailed in a recent letter to the board, and which readers can judge for themselves. (Read it below.)

The Post also reported that some of the Starr opponents on the board don’t seem to like Starr’s personal style. He is said to be uncommunicative and dismissive to board members and isn’t the politician Weast was. And there’s another thing they reportedly didn’t like: Starr was a candidate for chancellor of the New York City schools system, and some board members saw this as proof that he isn’t committed to this district. Really? That Starr was sought out by New York officials and turned down a chance to be deputy chancellor (to become the chancellor in waiting) in order to stay in Montgomery County doesn’t suggest a commitment to Montgomery County?

Starr’s tenure, to be sure, has not been without its problems. Among them are his handling of the issue of whether to change school start times, which has left something to be desired, and his administration’s handling of alleged incidents of sexual abuse on school grounds.

There may be very clear reasons that board members can cite for why they want to replace Starr. But without the board telling the public what those reasons are, the public is left to guess.

The board should not only publicly explain its views about Starr but also disclose who they think could have better handled the changing landscape in the school system, and who they want to run the system in the interim if they start looking for a successor. And they need to make the case that instability in the system — which is no insignificant problem for school systems — is more beneficial than trying to continue working with Starr. What traits would they actually be looking for in a successor? Someone who kowtows to them? Someone who has more political game? Someone with a more clearly articulated vision that may or may not lead to progress? Someone who has made important progress before in a similar-sized district?

What, exactly?

The citizens of Montgomery County can’t know unless the board tells them.

starr 2starr 3starr 4starr 5