Montgomery County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight says she plans to apply for the permanent position.
McKnight took over in the interim role when Jack Smith retired in June and will stay in that position through June 2022 as the school board conducts a nationwide search for the next leader of the state’s largest school district.
In an interview with Bethesda Beat on Wednesday afternoon, McKnight said she plans to apply when applications open, in the hopes she can continue to lead the school system long-term.
“I grew up in the system, I’ve benefited from the system, I believe in the system and I love the school system,” McKnight said. “… So now there’s an opportunity in which the system is requiring leadership, and it is requiring familiarity for things that have worked very well for us in our system, and then familiarity well enough to know where the areas are that we can continue to build on to be even better.”
McKnight, 45, is the first woman to serve in MCPS’ top position, even temporarily. She is the second person of color in the role.
When Smith announced his retirement in January, school board members quickly turned to McKnight, then his second-in-command, to fill the position, amid various unique challenges caused by COVID-19.
And she spared no time before implementing changes as MCPS turns its attention to pandemic recovery.
She recently announced a plan to restructure central offices, to “minimize disruption without sacrificing the ability to provide the highest-quality opportunities for our students.” She has selected more than a dozen people to fill key administrative positions, which have been approved by the school board.
Some have criticized the changes, noting that a new superintendent could be hired in a year and have a different vision. Others have expressed concern that some positions were filled by experienced and well-liked principals who people trust to lead post-pandemic recovery efforts. Damon Monteleone, for example, previously the principal at Richard Montgomery High School, was hired as assistant chief of teaching, learning and schools, and James D’Andrea, previously principal of Northwest High School, was hired as McKnight’s chief of staff.
On Wednesday, McKnight said she is using “the knowledge that I have of this system and making sure it’s always working on behalf of the students.” And, she said, there’s not time to wait to implement initiatives post-pandemic.
“I think if we were to take what we had before and try to fit, I guess, a square peg into a round hole, to me, we would be dismissing what our students need right now,” McKnight said. “We all know that there are going to be significant needs that we need to be prepared to support them with, so that means we have to look at our organization and … make sure the support is getting to the students. So, for me, that’s what it’s all about.”
She added that she understands communities’ concerns about losing experienced principals, but is excited their expertise will reach more students. She said she believes the district will find equally competent leaders to take their places.
McKnight returned to MCPS as deputy superintendent in June 2019, after serving as Howard County Public Schools’ chief school management and instructional leadership officer. McKnight previously worked for MCPS as the director of secondary leadership development programs, and as a principal at Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg. She has a doctorate of education in education leadership and policy from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Under Smith, McKnight led equity initiatives for MCPS, and often filled in for Smith at meetings and events.
Her experience and intimate knowledge of the school district immediately made her a top candidate for the interim superintendent role, school board members said at the time.
“I certainly think she has the inside edge (for the interim job). In this most challenging time, having someone intimately involved with every aspect of MCPS is critical,” school board member Pat O’Neill said at the time.
The school board in May began soliciting proposals from companies to help conduct a national search for the next MCPS superintendent. Proposals were due by June 24. A contract had not been awarded as of Wednesday.
In previous interviews, school board members have said it is important for them to do their “due diligence” in the search, rather than relying on simply vetting internal candidates.
In the meantime, McKnight will receive a salary of $295,000 in the interim role, according to her employment contract, obtained by Bethesda Beat in May.
The contract includes a clause that says McKnight is not prohibited from applying for the permanent superintendent position. If she does not apply or is not chosen, she may return to her position as deputy superintendent “or a comparable position within MCPS at the annual salary and benefits” she earned as deputy. McKnight received a salary of $240,900 as deputy superintendent, according to MCPS records.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org