After Uncertainty Surrounding Joshua Starr’s Resignation, Officials Express Confidence in New Superintendent Pick

Board of Education introduced Jack Smith as the school system’s next leader almost a year after Starr’s departure


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Jack Smith (center top row) poses for a photograph with the Montgomery County Board of Education after Thursday night's press conference

Sonya Burke/Twitter

The hugs and handshakes between school system officials and Jack Smith, appointed Thursday as the next superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, came with a palpable sense of relief.

A year and a day after former Superintendent Joshua Starr resigned and after a failed first attempt to find his replacement, the Board of Education announced it had found a leading state-level education official with local superintendent experience to take over.

“It has not been an easy challenge, but I think, a worthwhile challenge,” board President Michael Durso said during a press conference Thursday night after Smith’s appointment.

Craig Rice, chairman of the County Council’s Education Committee, was a bit more direct.

“We had some hiccups and fits and starts in this whole process,” Rice told Bethesda Beat. “Hopefully, we won’t have to do this process again for a long time.”

Starr resigned after it became clear he didn’t have support from enough board members for a contract extension. His resignation came under uncertain circumstances.

Durso, as well as board members Judith Docca, Jill Ortman-Fouse and Rebecca Smondrowski, reportedly were prepared to vote against giving Starr a second four-year contract. His first contract was set to expire last summer.

But to the consternation of some, they refused to explain why publicly, saying the issue was a private personnel matter. Starr’s official resignation agreement included a clause prohibiting Starr and board members from making disparaging comments about each other.

After the Thursday press conference at the school system’s Rockville headquarters, Durso said, “I don’t think it’s helpful to resurrect Dr. Starr’s resignation.”

Durso did say one of the things that impressed him about Smith, the state’s interim school superintendent, during the interview process was his answer to the question of what other jobs he might have pursued if he wasn’t applying for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS).

“He said, ‘I always thought about going back and being an English teacher, which is where I started.’ Not too many people who have been at the level he has, both as a local and a state superintendent, would want to go back into the classroom,” Durso said. “So I think that says a lot for him.”

Some county schools officials were reportedly turned off by Starr’s pursuit in 2013 of the top school system job in New York City.

Other reports said board members didn’t like Starr’s communication style, though none of the elected officials ever made their concerns public.

“What you see is what you get,” Durso said of Smith, who is set to take over the job July 1 once he and the board agree on a contract and the state approves his hiring. “The conversations, both formal and informal, were very easy. I think we have a good feel for each other, the board as a whole and Dr. Smith. He is very non-confrontational. I look forward to things being pretty harmonious.”

The board also ran into criticism last May when it presented Andrew Houlihan, a relatively young administrator in the Houston school system, as its “preferred choice” to take over for Starr. A group of community stakeholders, including PTA and teacher union representatives, reportedly canned the selection. County Executive Ike Leggett wondered publicly whether Houlihan had the necessary experience to run the state’s largest school system.

A few days later, Houlihan withdrew his name from consideration and the board convinced interim Superintendent Larry Bowers to put off his retirement and continue in the interim role through the 2015-2016 school year.

“I think we’re not going to get any more answers about that,” said Frances Frost, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, when asked whether the hiring process for Smith revealed why the board had apparently lost confidence in Starr.

“So I am looking forward to hopefully getting to some level of stability about who our new superintendent is and being able to move forward,” Frost said.

Durso cited budgeting and analyzing the “return on investment” of school system programs as two of the strengths of Smith, who ran the Calvert County school system for seven years and was named the state’s superintendent of the year in 2013 before joining the state.

Durso said the board received 70 applications for the job. Members of the board interviewed 11 of the candidates. Durso said eight were from different states, seven were superintendents, six were racial minorities and three were women.

Smith, 58, is the system’s third white male superintendent in a row, following Starr and Jerry Weast, who ran MCPS for 12 years. More than half of the about 1.1 million people who live in Montgomery County are minorities and the well-regarded school system faces a longstanding and pronounced achievement gap between white and Asian students and black and Hispanic students.

Chris Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the county’s main teachers union, said he still thinks Smith was the right choice.

“Race matters. Poverty matters,” Lloyd said. “I think [Smith] understands that and I think more than understanding it and describing the problem, he has very clearly articulated he’s going to do something about it.”

As for the year-long process that started with Starr’s resignation and led to the board’s selection of Smith?

“I tend to be someone who believes that things work out how they were meant to,” Lloyd said. “I think he is the right man for this time.”

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