Credit: Andrew Metcalf

Most parents and other residents of Montgomery County will not know who has been selected to run the county’s public school system—the largest in the state—until the Board of Education announces who it has hired.  

That wasn’t the case with recent schools superintendent searches conducted in Boston and Palm Beach, Florida, where finalists were introduced to the public before local school boards made their decisions.

When it comes to picking a new schools chief, whether it’s better to conduct a search openly or in private is subject to debate.

For more than two months, the county school board has been conducting a confidential search for a replacement for Montgomery County Public Schools chief Joshua Starr, who left in February after learning that the board would not renew his contract for another four years. The search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates is overseeing the search; the firm conducted superintendent searches for the board in 1999 and again in 2011, when Starr was hired.

Hank Gmitro, who manages superintendent searches for the firm, said that the board has been interviewing candidates. Members are reviewing about a dozen applicants “to determine who they want to invite back,” he said.

Most members of the board defend the decision to keep the process confidential, as the board did with the 2011 search, saying it’s important if the district wants to attract quality candidates. 

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Greater transparency “might sabotage the process,” says board Vice President Michael Durso, a former principal of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring. “I think there is a decent pool of applicants. The confidentiality piece is a concern for some candidates. Once they are back home and people find out that they are looking, [people] might become a little less enamored of them. If someone is not a superintendent, however, it might be seen in a different light because it is a promotion.”

Some board members were dismayed to learn in 2013, just two years into Starr’s four-year term, that he was under consideration to head the New York City public school system. They resented that Starr may have been considering leaving, though others saw the move as a validation of Starr’s credentials.

Jeannette Dixon, a recently retired county educator who spent 12 years as the principal of Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, said openness is the best course when choosing a new superintendent.

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“If you don’t want people to know that you are applying for the job, something has to be wrong. People who do an outstanding job generally ask their employer to give them a reference and they will seek their support,” Dixon said.

The school board hopes to have a new superintendent on board by July 1, when acting superintendent Larry Bowers is planning to retire. School board President Patricia O’Neill has appointed a group of community representatives to help the board vet finalists, but participants are sworn to secrecy. Members of the group were drawn from a variety of organizations in the county, including the NAACP, the Universities at Shady Grove and the Montgomery County Recreation Department.

Sheldon Fishman, a former PTA president who is aligned with the local watchdog group Parents Coalition, said he understands both perspectives on keeping the selection process confidential, but ultimately believes the community and superintendent would benefit from public exposure to the finalists.

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“The argument for confidentiality and secrecy is not unreasonable. It is a question of balance, pros and cons. Obviously, there are some candidates who currently have other jobs who will not apply for a job at MCPS if it is not confidential,” he said. “The benefits of transparency are that the new superintendent will start out, in particular if the three finalists have been revealed, without having to win the support of the community. The community will have participated, at least to some degree.”

Mark Simon, an educational consultant who is a former head of the county’s teachers union, said that without more insight into what the board is looking for in a new superintendent, it is difficult to understand what the superintendent’s marching orders will be.

Some board members privately complained about what they described as Starr’s dismissive demeanor, and the list of characteristics that the public and board members told the search firm they want in a new superintendent included someone who “effectively communicates with staff and other stakeholders” and who “establishes and nurtures working relationships with the board, county officials and state leaders.”

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The list of criteria also calls for a new schools chief who will continue Starr’s efforts to close the achievement gap between white and minority students and to focus on social and emotional learning.

Last week, two prospective candidates pulled out of the running.

Robert Avossa, head of the Fulton County, Georgia, public schools, was reported to be under consideration for the MCPS post, but opted to take the Palm Beach job. And after an inquiry last week from Bethesda Beat, MCPS Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham, whom some board members had been urging to apply for Starr’s job, also decided against a candidacy and issued a statement saying she had not applied for the job.

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