Montgomery County's new 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)

THE MONTGOMERY County Board of Education is unlikely to renew the contract of Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr when it expires June 30, sources tell us. The prospect of a search for new leadership, less than four years after Mr. Starr took the helm, underscores the need to appraise what might have gone wrong. Did Mr. Starr not live up to expectations, or did the board have the wrong expectations of what was needed for the 154,000-student system? It’s not an academic question but one that will be critical to any effort to recruit a new superintendent.

Mr. Starr, by law, has until Feb. 1 to tell the school board whether he wants his contract renewed; the board then would have until March 1 to reach a decision. But informal talks have been underway, and sources tell us that Mr. Starr lacks support from a majority of the eight-member board for a four-year renewal of his contract, the only option allowed under Maryland law.

No vote has been taken, and the situation could still change. But board members opposed to his continuation have been adamant, while even Mr. Starr’s supporters seem more worried about the disruption from a change of leadership than enthused about his record.

That record has had its ups and downs. Mr. Starr’s strongest achievement in heading up one of the nation’s largest school systems has been his advocacy for the social and emotional health of students. There were missteps in the handling of some cases of student sexual abuse and issues such as the school calendar and start times. More damaging were signs that he was less than fully invested in Montgomery schools: his effort to fashion a national profile by speaking out against standardized tests and his apparent interest in heading New York City’s schools.

Accordingly, sources told us, Mr. Starr has been advised to pursue not renewal but rather conditions for his departure. (Let’s hope they don’t come on the taxpayers’ dime.) County and state officials have been brought up to date on the situation.

Board President Patricia O’Neill (3rd District) refused comment, citing the sensitivity of personnel matters. Mr. Starr did not respond to our request for comment.

It is important that officials be forthcoming about these matters and clear-cut in what they want in a superintendent. Mr. Starr is criticized for his seeming lack of agenda or top-down strategy, but the board that recruited him viewed his flexibility and collaborative approach as a welcome change to the hard-charging, albeit effective, 12-year rule of his predecessor, Jerry Weast.

The most important job of the school board is hiring a schools superintendent; it needs to get it right. We hope board members insist on someone who understands the urgency of the challenges facing the system, foremost being the achievement gap, in which minority and low-income students lag their white and more affluent counterparts. It is a problem not unique to Montgomery but one that this successful and well-resourced system should be uniquely suited to solve.