The citizens of Montgomery County, Md., might want to pay a little more attention to their school board elections. The Board of Education appears out to lunch with its primary charge: to recruit and hire a superintendent to run the well-regarded 144,000-student district.
In February, Joshua Starr, the superintendent the board hired just four years earlier, left his post before his first contract ran out. Why? The board was split, 4-4, on whether to give him a new contract. Why? Though the board is elected by the public, it didn’t feel the need to publicly explain why the man they had selected four years earlier was being let go. They also didn’t explain why they weren’t explaining. The board issued a news release saying that “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? It didn’t say.
Starr’s departure concerned many residents, who noted that graduation rates had increased under his stewardship and that he was an advocate of social-emotional learning. Others were not unhappy to see Starr go, but members in both camps worried that the nation’s most experienced, successful superintendents would be reluctant to come work for a board — even in such a highly regarded district — that had just fumbled so badly.
The board then appointed an interim superintendent, Larry Bowers, who had worked in numerous leadership positions in the school district for several decades. Bowers proceeded to start an administrative restructuring even though he was only planning to stay for a few months before a planned retirement. The board launched a national search, using the same search firm that it had used to find Starr. Reports began to emerge of at least one sitting superintendent who had been in the running who took another job, in Florida.
Fast forward to May. The board announced on May 14 that it had a leading candidate, Andrew Houlihan, the chief academic officer for the Houston Independent School District. The 36-year-old Houlihan, said to be a rising star in Houston, had already — in his relatively short career — held more than seven jobs, including teacher, principal, school support officer, chief major projects officer and chief human resources officer.
Houlihan was chief academic officer for less than two months before the members of the Board of Education in Montgomery County sat down with him to talk. According to this story by my colleague Donna St. George, board president Patricia O’Neill (who had actually been a Starr supporter) said board members had interviewed him for a total of six hours before deciding he had the intellect and energy for the job.
They had selected someone to run the largest school system in Maryland who had never been a superintendent, anywhere. Why? Couldn’t it attract someone who had led a major district? Didn’t it want someone who was a proven leader? As usual, the board hasn’t explained.
There were other questions about the selection. While his record of being promoted to increasingly bigger jobs in Houston in quick succession is certainly impressive, it also means that it is unlikely that he could have left a strong lasting record of success in any single post. What’s more, Maryland is a Common Core state, where students take the PARCC Common Core test for the purposes of holding students and teachers “accountable.” Texas, where Houlihan works, is not a Common Core state and does not use the PARCC. He’s obviously a quick study, but wouldn’t it make more sense to attempt to find someone already familiar with the Core and its implementation, a central issue for the district and the state?
It also appears the board named Houlihan its No. 1 candidate before getting enough community input. Some members of a community panel — who met Houlihan just hours after the board announcement — immediately began to push back. Other residents were concerned that he had no experience as a superintendent, others were concerned that the board had not selected a minority to run the majority-minority system. Three days later, on Sunday, May 17, Houlihan quietly withdrew his candidacy. This story by St. George said:
“He didn’t believe it was a good match for both sides, and so he withdrew,” O’Neill said, noting that such appointments must be “a good fit” for the prospective superintendent and for the district. “It’s a marriage,” she said.
Board members didn’t realize it wasn’t a “good fit” during their six hours of talks with him?
The board had promised after Starr left that it would have a new superintendent in place by July 1st. But on Tuesday it announced that it would meet Wednesday, May 20, “to take action on the conditional appointment of the Interim Superintendent of Schools for Montgomery County Public Schools,” an appointment that will be effective from July 1, 2015 through June 20, 2016. The board knows it can’t find a qualified candidate in time, and this effectively delays the search a year.
That might be the best thing the board can do at this point.
Bowers might stay — even though he is scheduled to retire from the system this summer — or the board could tap another internal interim. Yet, how much leeway will the interim have to make strategic changes that the district needs, some of which Starr was planning to undertake in the next school year? How much standing will an interim superintendent have to battle for resources with a new Republican governor intent on cutting school funding?
At some point, you’d think the voters of Montgomery County would demand some answers from their school board.
Meanwhile, Starr has found a new job: He was just named as the next chief executive officer for the Virginia-based PDK International, a premier professional association for educators that includes Educators Rising (launching in August 2015 as an evolution of the Future Educators Association), Pi Lambda Theta, and Phi Delta Kappa International.
Starr was chosen after a nationwide search that began last year.