Next Step for the MCPS Board of Ed

Written by: Mark Simon

by Stephanie Halloran and Mark Simon

While we are surprised and perplexed by the Board’s decision not to renew Superintendent Josh Starr’s contract, we can understand the benefits of not discussing personnel matters in public, and of focusing on next steps, versus dwelling on the process, no matter how clumsy.

At the same time, moving forward in a constructive manner requires better understanding of the key concerns that drove the decision. Washington Post reporter Donna St. George wrote regarding Dr. Starr’s departure, “Superintendent Joshua P. Starr will step down in two weeks, abruptly ending his tenure after failing to convince a majority of the school board that he was leading Maryland’s largest school system in the right direction.” Really?

Yesterday, as teachers gathered for MCEA’s monthly Rep Assembly, one after another spoke of their shock, surprise, and disappointment. There was a long back-and forth between teachers and MCEA president Doug Prouty in which the recurring sentiment was “we don’t want to hear about a ‘different direction.’ We felt pretty good about the direction we were going. Dr. Starr was selected based on an extensive process including focus groups of teachers and parents. We felt we had been heard.” Today’s follow-up Washington Post story quotes the PTA and NAACP expressing similar surprise and displeasure at the loss of a leader whose vision they strongly support.

To ensure credibility going forward, BOE members must not only respond to these concerns, but ensure that their differences, if any, with Dr. Starr’s direction are clearly laid out.

If the four BOE members didn’t like the direction Starr was leading MCPS, it’s a bit confounding that three members of the BOE campaigned for election without mentioning differences over direction or that they intended to fire the superintendent. The one who seemed most surprised when the new Board took office and voted his departure in January was Dr. Starr. None of the four who voted not to renew his contract at any time put forward any differences with his agenda, his vision, or objected to his bold battle with the US Department of Education and MSDE over standardized testing and teacher evaluation.

The four members of the Board owe the public answers to some questions and “personnel matter” must not be an excuse for those BOE members to duck answering those questions. Before the BOE goes on with its business, the four members need to clarify their substantive concerns. First, because as elected officials, they are accountable to the public, most of whom seem taken aback by this seemingly sudden move. Second, we deserve to know their vision for the school system and whether it is different than Dr. Starr’s, in order to support the selection process for the next superintendent.

Did they let Dr. Starr go because he was not leading the school system in the right direction? If so, with which aspects of his direction did they disagree? Was it his focus on the social-emotional life of students and teachers in schools? Was it his commitment to get standardized testing in perspective and not let it drive teacher or principal evaluation? Was it that the achievement gap based on race was narrowing but not meeting research based policy goals that the BOE had set? Or was it simply something about his style?

Here’s an interview with Starr on the day of his departure:  What about this man’s vision is not exactly what Montgomery County wants?

It looks doubtful that the BOE is going to schedule that clarification conversation as part of their regular business meetings. But perhaps they will re-think and see the value of doing that. If not, We would advise Council Education Committee Chair Craig Rice and Committee Member Marc Elrich to hold a meeting of the education committee, and respectfully request members of the BOE attend, to answer questions that need to be clarified. It is an appropriate oversight role for the Council to fix a process that has left all of us confused. And it is critical to setting us on the right path as we embark on a complicated search for the right superintendent.

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