When Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith retires this spring, his second-in-command is seen as a strong candidate to be appointed as the district’s interim superintendent.
Smith, 63, wrote in a message to MCPS staff members on Thursday afternoon that he will retire in June and move to Maine. There, he will reunite with his wife, who relocated to help care for their 2-year-old grandson, who has significant health problems.
“My family needs to be together, and I need to join my wife in New England,” Smith said in a solemn video message released Thursday. “ … There will be a part of my heart here as I go away this spring to a different obligation and a different adventure and doing different things than I’ve done before.”
In interviews on Friday, five school board members said MCPS Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight is the “obvious choice” to fill the vacant position, at least temporarily.
“With all of the challenges we have right now, I think it’s all pointing to Monifa McKnight being named as interim,” board member Pat O’Neill said, emphasizing that is her personal opinion, not that of the entire board. “I certainly think she has the inside edge. In this most challenging time, having someone intimately involved with every aspect of MCPS is critical.”
Fellow board members Rebecca Smondrowski, Lynne Harris, Karla Silvestre and Brenda Wolff agreed. They said it will be important during a time of so much uncertainty — a global pandemic, budget constraints, widespread calls for racial justice — to appoint somebody with a deep knowledge of the district’s inner workings.
They agreed that there’s nobody more familiar with those issues than McKnight.
Board members Nick Asante, Judy Docca and Shebra Evans could not be reached for comment on Friday.
McKnight, hired 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.
McKnight declined to comment on Friday afternoon.
She returned to MCPS as deputy superintendent during a broad restructuring of the central office. Some, including the teachers union, accused Smith of acting “secretly” because her hiring and the restructuring were not disclosed to the staff in advance.
Since her return, McKnight has been a familiar face during school board meetings and MCPS events.
She often takes the reins from Smith to lead presentations and answer school board members’ questions, leading some education insiders to question whether Smith selected her specifically to eventually take over in his position.
Harris, the newest school board member, said she might not support appointing McKnight as interim chief if she is interested in the permanent position.
“One of the considerations about conducting a really robust and objective search is if you have an interim who is also a candidate, that may influence some people who would otherwise be willing to toss their hat in the ring because that person could be seen as having the upper hand, which I understand, too,” Harris said, adding that she does not know if McKnight is interested in the job.
Searching for a new chief
In February 2020, Smith and the school board agreed to a second four-year contract, set to run through 2024, a sigh of relief for a district that has cycled through superintendents in recent history.
Board members and many community members alike said it was critical to keep Smith at the helm of the state’s largest school district to “continue building on the progress” he made in his first four years.
But after Smith’s grandson underwent major open heart surgery in May 2019, many staff members and local education leaders suspected Smith would not stay for the entire term.
The school board has not formally met to begin discussions about hiring Smith’s successor, but plans a closed session meeting in early February to kickstart the process, according to Wolff, the board president.
Wolff said the board will “certainly” name the interim chief before Smith’s retirement June 1, but did not elaborate.
Regardless of who is chosen to take over as interim superintendent in June, the board has a difficult decision to make on many fronts.
State law mandates that school districts either have a permanent superintendent in place by the start of the fiscal year, on July 1, or keep an interim superintendent in place for the entire fiscal year, which ends June 30. That means MCPS could be without someone in the permanent position until mid-2022.
Board members said they are unsure of the best approach, but shared concerns about how robust a superintendent search will be this spring, largely because of the pandemic.
They also said superintendents who change jobs often look to make moves during the winter months, not the spring and summer.
The school board will likely hire a firm to help lead a nationwide search for the next superintendent.
Harris said if the search begins immediately and top candidates are identified by March, it’d be possible to hire Smith’s replacement by July 1. But, she said if there is not a strong pool of candidates, she hopes the board will “pause” the process and start again at a better time.
O’Neill said she thinks “it makes the most sense” to keep an interim superintendent through the year, so the district can focus on other pressing tasks, like reopening schools for in-person classes.
“Certainly, we can walk and chew gum, but I think the community expectation is really focused on school reopening at this moment,” O’Neill said.
Silvestre, the board’s vice president, said she thinks it’s unlikely that the board hires a new superintendent by July 1. But, she added, Smith is leaving the district “in a good place” to move forward in his absence.
“He knew he was leaving. He brought in [McKnight]. He has been very thoughtful and strategic about this, even though we didn’t know when it would happen, but he knew what he was doing and he’s leaving us in a good place,” Silvestre said.
‘The most important responsibility’ for school board members
With the memory of the tumult of the last superintendent search still fresh, some worry about the stress and uncertainty of what’s to come.
Over the past 30 years, since 1991, MCPS has had four superintendents. Smith will have served five years when he retires, and his predecessor, Josh Starr, served for four years.
MCPS named Larry Bowers, a longtime MCPS employee, interim superintendent during the search for Starr’s replacement.
After a three-month search and reviewing 25 applications, the school board in May 2015 named a 36-year-old Houston educator, Andrew Houlihan, as its “preferred candidate” for superintendent.
The next day, Houlihan withdrew his candidacy for the position, starting the process over.
Nearly a year later, in February 2016, the school board announced Smith, the interim Maryland superintendent of schools, as a finalist for the district’s top leadership position. He was officially hired as superintendent a month later.
O’Neill, a longtime school board member who was board president while searching for Starr’s replacement, said in an interview on Friday that the community should rest assured that the board will “take its time and not be rushed” in finding the right fit for the job.
“This is the most important responsibility that a Board of Education member has,” O’Neill said. “These things happen, and I’m obviously disappointed (Smith) is leaving now, but I totally respect his decision, and this board will take seriously the task of determining the future leader of MCPS.”
A history of MCPS superintendents since 1991
2016-2021: Jack Smith
2015-2016: Larry Bowers (interim)
2011-2015: Josh Starr
1999-2011: Jerry Weast
1991-1999: Paul Vance