Mounting tension between the county’s teachers union and Superintendent Jack Smith came to a head last week after Smith announced sweeping changes to his school district leadership team without first divulging the plan to the union.
Consternation between the Montgomery County Education Association and Smith has been growing for months, as major decisions have been made behind closed doors and teachers’ ideas have been sidelined, MCEA President Chris Lloyd said in an interview on Wednesday.
“I hate to say it, but it’s like business as normal now,” Lloyd said. “I’m not surprised anymore. I have literally just come to expect it.”
The most recent example came on Feb. 10, as Smith announced during a school board meeting that several central office departments would merge to form two new departments.
During the meeting, the school board appointed staff members to head the departments and filled vacancies in other administrative roles.
Lloyd said he learned of the changes six minutes before the meeting.
Lloyd and the MCEA executive board, along with representatives of other MCPS unions, met with Smith on Jan. 21. During that meeting, Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight said MCPS was going to make changes in central offices, but “there was no structure and there were no names,” according to Lloyd.
At a regularly scheduled MCEA executive board meeting on Feb. 5, union members asked for more information about the impending changes and emphasized the need for “a good labor partner.”
MCPS did not provide additional information, Lloyd said.
On Feb. 10, Henry Johnson, Smith’s chief of staff, called Lloyd’s office line 22 minutes before the school board meeting was set to begin. Lloyd was in transit to the meeting and did not receive the message.
Six minutes before the meeting, Johnson pulled Lloyd aside and showed him documents outlining the administration changes to be announced that day, Lloyd said.
“It was a surprise and I think what bothers folks is there was very little transparency — no transparency — around this, which, unfortunately, isn’t a surprise anymore,” Lloyd said. “The jobs were not posted, there weren’t interviews. The normal protocol wasn’t there.”
Smith declined an interview with Bethesda Beat to discuss the situation, but, through MCPS spokesman Derek Turner, issued a statement saying, “I deeply value the voices and input of all my fellow teachers.”
Turner said the school district did involve MCEA in discussions about the reorganization plan, but emphasized: “The superintendent is not required to run all new hires by the community.”
“They knew what was happening,” Turner said.
Lloyd acknowledged that the superintendent has autonomy to hire “whoever he pleases” without consulting MCEA. But, he said, not doing so in this case, when labor relations was moved under the purview of a new department, sends “a clear message to labor.”
“It sends a very strong message to us that, ‘We’ll run the system and you’ll fit in and do your work but you don’t need to know,’” Lloyd said. “It doesn’t sit right in a lot of ways, and it’s a pattern for a larger concern that there’s just no direct contact and collaboration with unions around things that really matter.”
Tension has been evident in recent months as the union negotiates its teachers contract with MCPS.
In a public blog last month, MCEA officials wrote that the school district’s “approach to bargaining demonstrates to us a lack of commitment to this process.” It said MCPS officials were lackadaisical in responding to MCEA bargaining proposals.
In his statement to Bethesda Beat, Smith wrote that he weighs teachers’ ideas in his decision making. He highlighted frequent visits to schools across the county and monthly meetings with the MCEA executive board and with Lloyd.
“While every detail and decision of MCPS administration and operation is not vetted by the leadership of our teachers association, the perspective of educators undoubtedly informs our work,” Smith wrote. “Though I may disagree with some MCEA’s strategies — like requesting $100 million over Maintenance of Effort for our operating budget from the County — I am always listening closely to their interest and concerns. At the end of the day, I am confident that we all share the same goal — to ensure every student has the access, opportunity and support to meet their full potential and is prepared to succeed in college, career and their community.”
The Montgomery County school board last week unanimously approved a four-year extension to Smith’s contract, now set to end in June 2024.
While there is “a growing tension,” Lloyd said, he is hopeful for better relations.
“Nothing is ever irreconcilable,” he said. “You can always move forward.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com