The chair of the County Council’s education committee today suggested that Board of Education members opposed to renewing the contract of Superintendent of Schools Joshua Starr should reconsider their position – saying he is “very concerned” about the prospect of a change in leadership at this time.
“I think our superintendent has certainly grown a lot in these four years,” said Councilmember Craig Rice, who served as president of the council in 2014. “I’m really starting to see some growth and change in our school system that I think is extremely positive—in terms of not just making excuses [for] some of the challenges we’re facing, but acknowledging and tackling them head on….It’s unfortunate to see that sort of progress may be stalled by his not receiving a renewal of the contract.”
Added Rice, who represents District 2 in the county’s northern section: “I’m very concerned about what that might mean for the school system – and kind of pressing the reset button and starting all over again.”
Rice’s comments came in the wake of reports that four Board of Education members are opposed to giving Starr a new four-year contract, leaving him a vote short of the majority he needs to stay in the job he has held since 2011. Under state law, Starr has until Feb. 1 to inform the school board whether he will seek a contract renewal.
Members of the school board pressing for Starr’s ouster are said to believe he has not aggressively addressed a number of the problems facing the nation’s 17th largest school system – which has 154,000 students, with enrollment growing at a rate of 2,500 students each year. But another member of the council’s education committee, at-large Councilmember Marc Elrich, was critical of the school board for failing to give Starr a clear mandate.
“The school system hired Starr on the premise he wasn’t supposed to change things. He was not brought in here as a change agent; in fact, he was told you’ve got the greatest school system in the world,” declared Elrich, who taught elementary school prior to his election to the council. “There’s no evidence the board ever laid out any direction to Starr other than ‘Don’t muck with the way things are’.”
Added Elrich: “They got the superintendent they wanted. They gave him no instructions to be a bold leader and now they are criticizing him for stuff that nobody told him to do.”
While stopping short of calling on the school board to rethink its apparent decision on Starr, Elrich said that current problems surrounding the school system “are not [Starr’s] fault. These kids are not under a new academic regime that he installed. These are the problems of the old regime.”
Referring to a major issue in the school system – the disparity in academic achievement between white students and many of those of minority backgrounds – Rice, the council’s only African-American member, said, “I certainly care about the achievement gap; it’s something personal to me.” But, citing data released earlier this week, Rice added: “At the same time, we’ve seen dropout numbers decline, we’ve seen graduation rates increase. They’re not at the levels that I want them to be, but we are making progress. I can tell you in the conversations I’ve had with the superintendent, he has agreed with me, and that we have been collaborating on how we can achieve better results.”
Asked whether those board members opposed to a new contract should rethink their position, Rice replied, “It’s certainly my hope folks acknowledge that maybe the personalities weren’t meshing together, but that we have to look at the bigger picture here – what’s going to happen with our school system and our kids.”
As school board members met in closed session today on Starr’s future, several sources said the superintendent has been marshaling supporters to press the case for giving him four more years. Starr is said to have told those close to him that he wants to continue as the superintendent of the Montgomery County schools.
The question is whether he will decide to formally request a new contract between now and Sunday – a move that would set off a month-long debate by the board, which, under law, would have to decide his fate by March 1.