For more than a year, Jack Smith led the country’s 14th largest school district while his wife lived more than 12 hours away, helping to care for the couple’s seriously ill grandson.
Alone at his Rockville home in December, Smith — Montgomery County Public Schools’ superintendent — realized the arrangement was not sustainable any longer.
He missed Gayle, his wife of 41 years, and his family. He was worried about his 2-year-old grandson, who was born with a malformed heart. The boy recently underwent major open heart surgery and must isolate indefinitely to avoid illness.
So, on Jan. 13, Smith called his eight bosses on the Montgomery County Board of Education, and told them he will retire in June, one year into his second contract. The next day, Smith announced his decision publicly in a message to staff and community members, paired with a video in which he solemnly explained his family situation.
For 18 months, Gayle has lived in Maine while her husband stayed in Maryland. Jack Smith traveled back and forth, spending the occasional quick weekend with his family before flying back to Montgomery County for the week.
Then COVID-19 hit, changing everything.
Smith could no longer fly and visit his wife, daughter or son-in-law without undergoing several coronavirus tests and quarantining, he explained in a recent interview with Bethesda Beat. His grandson is at high risk for serious complications if he contracts the virus.
“I just realized it’s not acceptable to be living away from my wife and my family anymore, considering the circumstances,” Smith said. “It’s not a place I wanted to get to, but the impact on our little 2-year-old grandson has been profound.”
The boy was born with a misaligned heart and chambers that were not fully developed. He spent more than a month receiving treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital before going home.
When he was 11 months old, in May 2019, he underwent a major daylong open heart surgery. When the boy weighs 50 pounds, which the family expects will happen within the next two years, he will need another surgery.
Until then, he has to remain largely isolated and avoid exposure to potential diseases, including COVID-19.
Smith, 63, signed his second four-year contract to lead the state’s largest school district in February 2020.
He told the school board at the time that because of his family needs, he might need to leave his position early, but he believed “it was very, very possible I can stay for the full four years.”
Speculation that he did not intend to honor his contract was not true, Smith said.
“I believe, without any doubt, there’s no way I’d be retiring right now if COVID-19 hadn’t hit last year, and if he were not in the circumstance where he needs to be essentially isolated until his next medical procedure,” Smith said. “… My children are the single most important thing in my life, along with my wife, and so at this critical place with this strange set of circumstances, I just had to choose, ultimately, that they were the most important part.”
Accomplishments and regrets
Smith took over at MCPS after a prolonged and often tense superintendent search. His mantra “all means all,” repeated at almost every school board meeting and public event, guided his work. The saying, Smith said, focused the district’s efforts on ensuring that all students in Montgomery County have access to high-quality education and opportunities.
Over the past five years, MCPS has made progress, Smith said.
The district has expanded access to dual-language programs and gives more students access to higher-level courses, he said. More students are receiving technical education licenses and taking dual-enrollment courses through Montgomery College.
“Those are some of the areas I think MCPS has grown in, though it’s not my achievements, it’s the staff’s,” Smith said. “When we talk about how we make sure we’re caring for every student and their learning and progress as a learner in pre-K through 12th grade, these are some of the really important things we’ve done to ensure that.”
But Smith said he regrets that he couldn’t help usher some initiatives further along.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, MCPS and the county couldn’t put as strong of an emphasis on expanding access to pre-kindergarten as they have in recent years.
And, in hindsight, Smith said he wishes he would have pushed to provide laptops to all students long before the pandemic moved classes online for nearly a year.
“I do regret that in my first month, I didn’t just say, ‘Let’s move into a more consistent, more extensive digital world’ back in 2016, because, unfortunately, it was imposed upon us in the spring [of] 2020, and if we had started a few years earlier, how much more natural would the process have been,” Smith said. “I think our staff’s done a great job with it, but it’s been tough and chaotic to move into a totally digital world.”
The school board has met multiple times since Smith’s announcement to begin discussions about who will be named interim superintendent and the process for finding his replacement.
The board has said it will conduct a nationwide search.
Some have said that Smith’s second-in-command, Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight, would be a good fit for interim superintendent or as the district’s next permanent leader.
School board members have said McKnight is the “obvious choice,” at least for the interim role.
For whomever takes his place, Smith’s advice was to remember: “You don’t have to be sick to get better.”
“We don’t have a sick or failing school system. And, yet, it can improve in many areas, and the district should pursue that and, as they do, I’ll also leave a part of my heart when I don’t live there anymore,” Smith said. “And that makes me sad, but I certainly wish the community, especially the school system, the very best forever.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org