This story was updated at 4:41 p.m. on Jan. 14, 2021, and again at 6:20 p.m. with more information about Jack Smith’s retirement announcement.
As Maryland’s largest school district grapples with widespread problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Montgomery County Public Schools’ Superintendent Jack Smith on Thursday announced his retirement.
In a message to staff members, Smith, 63, cited family concerns — his 2-year-old grandson had open heart surgery in May 2019, and will require extensive long-term care, and Smith’s wife, Gayle, recently relocated to Maine to help care for the boy.
“Given his health needs, our family’s circumstances are not going to change for at least the next few years,” Smith wrote. “I need to join Gayle in Maine to support our grandson as I find I can no longer tolerate living most of the time separately.”
Smith, in his fifth year at the helm of the state’s largest school district, wrote that his retirement will tentatively take effect June 1.
School board President Brenda Wolff said in an interview on Thursday afternoon that she was notified about Smith’s decision on Wednesday. Wolff said she wasn’t surprised because she knew Smith was working through a difficult family situation.
Wolff said the school board will hold a closed session meeting “soon” to begin discussions about naming an interim superintendent, which will be announced before June 1.
The school board will then conduct a nationwide search for Smith’s replacement.
His second-in-command is Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight.
Smith was hired in 2016 and has a salary of $290,000. He was previously the interim state superintendent of schools.
“I have loved my time in Montgomery County Public Schools and have no desire to leave,” Smith wrote in his message to the staff. “The staff in the school system is among the most talented and dedicated in this country. … I will greatly miss being a part of this organization.”
Smith’s departure comes in an already unsteady time in local education as the district grapples with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For nearly the past year, all of the district’s students have taken classes from home as the pandemic rages through the county. Smith and the school system have been strongly criticized by those who think remote instruction is causing educational damage.
In a statement, the school board wrote that Smith’s “steady leadership has guided us through these tremendously challenging times as we navigate the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic and work to get students and staff back in buildings as quickly and safely as possible.”
“Dr. Smith is an exceptionally skilled leader and we are grateful for the time we have had with him,” the statement said. “Although we are saddened by his departure, we understand his need to be with his family as they navigate a variety of challenging health circumstances.”
Cynthia Simonson, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations and a longtime education advocate, said changes in leadership always bring “mixed emotions.”
Finding someone who is both qualified and capable of leading the district and who is willing to leave their current job in the middle of the pandemic will be challenging, she added about the search for his replacement.
Would MCPS want to hire someone whose district is “depending on their leadership skills to see them through to the other side” of the pandemic, Simonson wondered.
“Do we want that person, when they’re willing to leave their district now?” Simonson asked
Asked if she was anxious about the timing of Smith’s departure, Wolff said she understands that “change is always hard,” but believes “Dr. Smith has to do what he has to do for his family.”
Smith has led MCPS through a contentious review of school boundaries, significant central office restructuring, the creation of more regional international baccalaureate sites and expanded students’ access to career and technical education programs by opening two new regional programs.
Both Wolff and Simonson praised Smith’s commitment to providing more data about students’ academic achievement. They pointed specifically to the development of new data dashboards over the past several years that provide detailed information about students’ performance in math and literacy, broken down by grade and demographics.
Also during Smith’s tenure, the district grappled with several high-profile sexual assaults among students and staff members, and a wave of hundreds of sexual assault and harassment claims made by students on social media this summer.
“Like with any job, I’m sure, Dr. Smith had his detractors,” Wolff said, “but, to me, he always did his job and was always, always concerned about everyone in Montgomery County Public Schools.”
Smith’s current four-year contract was signed in February 2020 and lasts through June 30, 2024.
The contract says Smith can cash in half of his unused annual leave and sick days at the end of his employment. He is given 30 days of annual leave and 25 sick days each year.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org