Montgomery County Schools Superintendent  Joshua Starr on July 25, 2011, in Rockville, Maryland, shortly after he became schools chief.  He is leaving in a few weeks before his first term is over. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

After days of speculation about why the Montgomery County Board of Education decided not to retain Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr for a second four-year term and allow (push?) him to leave in two weeks, long before the end of the school year, a noon news conference was called to clear the air. All eight members of the board turned out, along with Starr and a few board spokesmen.

Surely, answers were at hand. Somebody in that crowd of public officials would say something to explain why Starr no longer had the votes for a second four-year term. Right?

Wrong.

Board members stood in a hallway at the system’s headquarters in Rockville, Md., packed with journalists, and listened to their board president, Patricia B. O’Neill, say that Starr was a “thoughtful, intelligent leader” who was “dedicated to children” and, not incidentally, whom she still supported. Nevertheless, she said, “we’re going to be changing quarterbacks.”

Starr then addressed the crowd, saying he was proud to have served as superintendent and listing some of his accomplishments: He said he helped narrow the achievement gap, increased graduation rates, boosted AP and IB classes, etc.  He noted that he would have preferred to stay but respected the board members’ authority to have the superintendent they want.

But why was Starr leaving? He didn’t reveal what school board members had told him during their negotiations in recent days. O’Neill didn’t explain. Nor did any of the other Starr supporters (reports had it that there were four for him and four against, and he needed a majority to stay on). Or any  Starr opponents. In fact, only Starr and O’Neill addressed the crowd.

Why? They wouldn’t say exactly. Was it a requirement of an agreement reached by both sides that would see Starr leave in mid-February with a financial package? Was it because the board considers the firing of the superintendent a “personnel matter” that the public can’t be in on? Is it that opponents didn’t want to speak up so as not to — as one person close to the school system put it — “humiliate” Starr? (As if tossing him without public explanation isn’t humiliating enough.)

Nobody on the board would explain why they couldn’t explain why Starr is leaving.

There might well be solid reasons for the school board to want a new superintendent. But the public is being left in the dark about why, and officials are hiding behind the “it’s a personnel matter” cloak. Technically, hiring anybody is a personnel matter, but shouldn’t a publicly elected board tell the public why it is hiring and firing a superintendent of a public school district?

So why is he leaving? Was it because some board members didn’t think he was decisive enough? Or because he didn’t attack the achievement gap with sufficient vigor? Or because his administration was criticized for its handling of sexual abuses at county schools? Or because he clumsily handled an initiative to change school start times? Or because they didn’t like the fact that he was courted a year ago to be a candidate for New York City schools superintendent and declined a chance to be the deputy there? Was it because he has become a national figure criticizing the over-use of standardized testing (even while students in Montgomery County continue to be forced to take a battery of standardized tests?)

A news release from the board said that “after much discussion, the Board and Dr. Starr agreed it would be in the best interest of the district to appoint a new leader to carry forward the Board’s vision.” What vision? The statement didn’t say. The board members didn’t say.

Let’s, then, try to parse some of the statements made at the news conference to see what we can draw from them:

  • When asked about why Starr was going, O’Neill said she supported him but then noted that “there are eight individuals on the board, with eight different thoughts, opinions, using their own instincts in evaluating the system.” POSSIBLE MEANING: The opponents did not all have identical reasons for wanting Starr out and/or could not easily articulate their reasons.
  • She also said, “I am only one individual. It is a part of a collective body and a collective process, and the decision on any superintendent falls to those eight democratically elected.” POSSIBLE MEANING: I don’t like this but I couldn’t stop it.
  • She also noted that under Maryland law, the board can only offer “a four-year contract” to a superintendent. POSSIBLE MEANING: If the board could have offered him a two-year contract, some of his opponents might have given him more time.
  • Starr, when asked whether the board had ever told him it was unhappy with his performance, responded in part by noting that there is “a deep commitment to shared governance”  between the board and the superintendent. POSSIBLE MEANING: The board knew everything he was doing and bears some responsibility for what happened.
  • When asked why he was leaving mid-year and not waiting until the school year was out, Starr said that was what was “decided” in negotiations.  POSSIBLE MEANING: He wanted to stay through the school year but at least some board members thought it would be too disruptive for him to work for a board that had lost confidence in him.

After the board members filed out, followed by Starr, the spokesmen for the board fielded some questions, with one of them summing up this way:

“We’ve answered all we’re going to answer.”

Thanks. We’re all glad you cleared that up.