Monifa McKnight speaks on Tuesday after the Montgomery County school board chose her to be the next superintendent of the district. Credit: From Montgomery County Public Schools

This story was updated at 12:15 p.m. Feb. 8, 2022, with more details and comments.

Monifa McKnight on Tuesday was named the next superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in an historic vote that makes her the first woman to lead the state’s largest school district.

Following the unanimous vote by the school board approving her appointment, an emotional McKnight said she plans to focus on recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and working to support students’ and staff members’ physical and emotional well-being.

She also underscored the need to “rebuild trust” in the community after a tumultuous month as schools reopened following winter break and after two years of navigating the pandemic’s effect on schools.

School board President Brenda Wolff agreed that it’s been a “rough two years.”

“We have to let the healing begin,” she said. “It starts today.”

McKnight has been a familiar face as interim superintendent for the past eight months and in various administrative roles throughout the district for much of her career.

The details of McKnight’s contract, including her salary, are still being negotiated, and her hiring is dependent upon approval from the state superintendent of schools, according to MCPS officials.

Barring any unexpected complications, McKnight’s contract is expected to span four years, beginning July 1. She will remain in the interim role until then. As the interim superintendent, McKnight receives a salary of $295,000.

McKnight, 46, has faced sharp criticism since MCPS returned from winter break in January.

In the past five weeks, the county’s teachers union has taken a rare vote of “no confidence” in the response by McKnight and other district leaders to COVID-19. The administrators union raised similar concerns in a scathing letter.

However, a group of seven pastors in the Black Ministers Conference of Montgomery County wrote a letter alleging that McKnight was “strategically and unjustly vilified” during her superintendent candidacy, an effort to “destroy another professionally qualified woman of color,” The Washington Post reported.

Some community members have lamented what they feel is a lack of transparency and communication about how decisions are made, and inconsistent application of guidelines for when schools are temporarily closed due to the spread of the virus.

Last month, McKnight apologized in a districtwide message, saying MCPS “should have done a better job” communicating about some sudden changes.

Still, a contingent of community members have stood behind McKnight, highlighting her commitment to keeping schools across the district open after more than a year of virtual classes.

The job is challenging, McKnight said during a press conference on Tuesday, but she is “honored” to be chosen to lead during a difficult time.

“When you want to lead a purpose-driven life, it’s oftentimes not about self-comfort. It is about what you can do to serve others, and oftentimes creating sacrifice,” McKnight said. “… I’m honored to do it for a community I love, that has poured so much into me over my entire career. And so, to be able to serve at a time that is difficult, and to give my all at a challenging time, it is about service to this community.” 

McKnight invited civil discourse and constructive criticism, but asked that the community remain levelheaded in its disagreements.

“I know that there will be times in which we disagree, maybe even strongly, about how to achieve those priorities, and we should know that that is natural,” McKnight said. “I invite civil disagreement that moves us closer to the right answer … but I am asking that those differences do not stand in the way of the stability that our school system needs right now.”

In a letter to the community dated Tuesday, McKnight wrote: “I pledge to you all of me. This is a moment for which I have prepared my entire professional life, the majority of which I have spent here in Montgomery County Public Schools. Together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”

On Tuesday, the school board threw its support behind McKnight in a unanimous vote, after an abbreviated seven-month nationwide search for MCPS’ next leader. McKnight said almost immediately after taking over as interim superintendent that she would pursue the permanent position.

Following the vote, school board members said McKnight’s passion, “poise under pressure,” inside knowledge of the school district and “deep commitment to fostering a culture of academic success” set her apart from other candidates.

Board member Karla Silvestre said the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have been “some of the most challenging in public education,” and McKnight’s experience will “help us accelerate the key work we have to continue doing for all of our students.”

The school board has not said — including when asked during a press conference on Tuesday — how many people applied for the job — only that it conducted an initial round of interviews with “a number” of candidates before narrowing the field to four finalists. The other three finalists were not named.

The search for the district’s next superintendent dates to January 2021, when Jack Smith announced he would retire mid-contract in the spring to be closer to family, including a grandson with significant health problems. Smith was superintendent for five years.

The school board in August hired a consulting firm — the same one it has used for the past four searches — to lead the effort to find Smith’s replacement.

The board agreed to pay the firm — Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates (HYA) — $52,500, plus travel expenses.

Smith is now employed by HYA, but MCPS officials told Bethesda Beat last week he was not involved in the process to find MCPS’ superintendent.

When selecting McKnight for the interim position, school board members highlighted her knowledge of MCPS as a key benefit, particularly as the pandemic underscored deep-seated inequities, and as the district confronted issues of racial equity in the wake of national unrest after high-profile killings of Black men by police across the country.

But some board members were concerned that having an interim who had publicly said she wanted the permanent job would deter other quality candidates from applying.

On Tuesday, the school board again and repeatedly said McKnight’s experience working with the MCPS community and with other county government officials was a big bonus.

Wolff, the board president, said she believes the nationwide search was necessary, even if the final choice was someone already in the district.

Because, she said, “now we are convinced that we have the best person for this job.”

In an interview following her appointment in March as interim superintendent, McKnight said she was “humbled and honored” to lead MCPS, and excited to possibly be an inspiration for women and students who may not be accustomed to seeing a Black woman in leadership positions.

She reiterated that point on Tuesday, also pointing out that the decision was made during Black History Month, at MCPS’ headquarters, which was formerly the only high school for Black students in the county.

“It is not lost on any of us that we are shattering the glass ceiling here in Montgomery County Public Schools, as I become the first female superintendent of schools,” McKnight said, before thanking former superintendent Paul Vance for “forging a path” as the first Black superintendent of the district.

McKnight, hired as deputy superintendent in May 2019, was previously the chief school management and instructional leadership officer for Howard County Public Schools. Before that, she worked in MCPS’ central office and as a principal at Ridgeview Middle School.

McKnight has a doctorate of education in education leadership and policy from the University of Maryland, College Park.

MCPS has had 26 superintendents (including interims and those of the schools for Black students when the district was segregated) since 1860, according to the district.

Caitlynn Peetz

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com