Montgomery County's superindendent Joshua Starr holds a press conference on the first day of school at Brookhaven Elementary School Monday, Aug.29, 2011 in Rockville, MD. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

WHEN IT became apparent that he wouldn’t be given another term as Montgomery County schools superintendent, Joshua P. Starr asked to be released from his current contract. His desire to quit in the middle of the school year underlines why he probably wasn’t the best person to lead Maryland’s largest school system. The fact that the school board is going along, essentially paying him not to finish the job they hired him to do, speaks volumes about its judgment. We can only hope board members show better sense when it comes time to select a permanent replacement.

Under terms of a mutual agreement announced Tuesday, Mr. Starr will resign effective Feb. 16. Larry A. Bowers, the district’s very able chief operating officer, will manage the 154,000-student system on an interim basis while a nationwide search is conducted. We reported last week that four of eight board members had lost confidence in Mr. Starr’s ability to move the system forward and, as a result, would not renew his contract when it expired June 30.

Behind-the-scenes negotiations resulted in a generous severance deal for Mr. Starr. School officials said it would have been awkward for Mr. Starr to remain in office, and his early departure will allow a clean pivot for all parties. Accordingly, he will be paid his $264,002 annual salary as if employed through June 30, receive an additional $46,583.96 for unused vacation, sick and personal leave, get the deferred-compensation benefit of $35,000 spelled out in his contract, remain on the health plan until Dec. 31 and receive up to $2,000 to cover attorney’s fees.

“I’m not going to fight a fight I can’t win,” Mr. Starr said at Tuesday’s news conference. But quitting a job he was hired to do until June 30 — and still getting paid — sends a poor message to students. Most of the blame rests with a school board whose fumbling moves throughout this matter have not inspired confidence. On Tuesday, the board praised Mr. Starr as “a thoughtful, intelligent leader, dedicated to children, committed to social justice and social-emotional learning” — and offered the public no explanation for showing him the door. We can’t wait to hear how the board will defend its budget requests to county officials now.

But the timing and terms of Mr. Starr’s departure are small potatoes compared with what direction the schools will take and what qualities the board will seek in a new leader. After all, Mr. Starr’s collaborative style, now criticized for its aimlessness, was initially welcomed as a change from the take-charge approach of his predecessor, Jerry Weast, whom a previous board had come to resent.

Montgomery’s schools are well regarded, not just in the state but nationwide. But there are challenges — in booming enrollment, changing academic standards, uncertain finances and a persistent achievement gap. A successful superintendent has to satisfy many constituencies, keeping high achievers in the system even while devoting resources to those who need them most. The board needs to step up its own game even as it aims high in the search for a new superintendent.