Montgomery County Public School officials are celebrating test scores that have started to rebound post-virtual learning, yet other cumulative data from the 2022-23 academic year shows concerning trends across MCPS.
Officials reported 18 students survived suspected overdoses after being treated with Narcan on school property and at least five others died of overdoses last school year. A record-breaking 238 hate bias incidents were reported in schools, along with 1,130 bullying incidents, while antisemitism is anticipated to reach record-breaking levels countywide in 2023, according to Anti-Defamation League data. And 27% of all students were considered chronically absent, including over 35% of high school students—an increase of eight percentage points over the previous year.
Over the spring and summer, the school district also received pushback from thousands of Muslim and Christian community members via protests, petitions and public testimony objecting to its no-opt-out approach to newly introduced elementary-level LGBTQ+ inclusive texts, culminating in a lawsuit filed in federal court by three families.
And this month, a published report chronicled numerous allegations of sexual harassment against a longtime principal who for years appeared to evade discipline—and was slated for a promotion this coming school year.
Examining Monifa McKnight’s inaugural year as the permanent superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, MoCo360 interviewed more than 25 students, parents, educators, stakeholders and officials to reveal key themes of feedback about the efficacy of her leadership.
While many applaud McKnight’s ability to connect with constituents and appreciate her administration’s emphasis on eradicating racism and bigotry from the school system, students and parents alike expressed concern about transparency and communication under McKnight’s leadership. Parents described an inscrutable culture of secrecy within central office and a lack of transparency in how decisions are made, while students expressed a desire for more engaging, direct communication from McKnight and her staff.
Overwhelmingly, stakeholders agreed the recent revelation of allegations against principal Joel Beidleman and ensuing investigations have shifted the political landscape for McKnight for the worse but could—if handled correctly—provide her a career-defining opportunity to make up for lost trust.
‘Ticking time bombs’ in a post-pandemic landscape
The 2022-23 school year signaled what many have described as an attempted return to pre-pandemic operations, though community members have pointed to unique trials facing McKnight that COVID-19 only exacerbated.
“I don’t envy her,” said County Councilmember Gabe Albornoz (D-At-large), who works closely with McKnight as a member of the council’s Education & Culture Committee. “The types of issues she’s had to deal with as superintendent are unprecedented.”
School board members did not respond to requests for comment on this article, nor did any of the three MCPS employee unions, the County Council’s Education & Culture Committee Chair, Will Jawando, or Council President Evan Glass (D-At-large), who this spring criticized an alleged lack of transparency in the school budgeting process, in an opinion essay published in MoCo360.
Albornoz described the most populous school district in Maryland as “at a crossroads” and said he believes this new school year will provide McKnight her first real opportunity to “put her stamp on” how she wants to manage a school system serving more than 162,000 students.
After months of tense and sometimes heated public budget discussions, in June the Board of Education approved this year’s $3.165 billion MCPS operating budget—a historically high figure representing nearly half the county’s entire budget for the next fiscal year and partially funded by a controversial 4.7% property tax hike. The budget is still $74.3 million less than the school board’s initial ask, and exacerbating factors like inflation and contract-mandated salary increases are already forcing McKnight’s administration to make difficult budget decisions this school year.
Diego Uriburu is the executive director and co-founder of Identity, a local nonprofit that provides support and resources to immigrant and low-income students across the county. He’s worked closely with MCPS for years and said many of the issues McKnight is juggling she inherited as “ticking time bombs” passed forward by previous superintendents for years and finally detonated by the pandemic.
McKnight served as deputy superintendent for eight months under Superintendent Jack Smith before she was appointed to temporarily take over the reins as acting superintendent after Smith’s June 2021 retirement. The academic year as interim was rocky as MCPS grappled with returning to in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic—and the teachers union rewarded McKnight and the school board with a vote of no confidence, while the principals’ union fretted the district was no longer “elite.” The Board of Education then unanimously voted to approve McKnight’s appointment as superintendent in February 2022. Her contract is set to run through July 2026.
“When the problems were a lot smaller, we didn’t address them, and now the challenges are ginormous,” Uriburu said. “Suddenly there’s no more road to kick the can down. […] Now we have an administration that has to deal with all these things exploding left and right, leaving the school system facing the biggest challenges in its history.”
Many parents—in public testimony and interviews—have expressed sharp criticism of McKnight’s administration, describing a lack of meaningful two-way communication and a perception of being closed off from external scrutiny. Charles Baserap, parent of a Rockville High School freshman, described feeling like decisions from central office are often made “in secret” and said many parents feel “completely kept in the dark” when it comes to the way their students’ schools are managed.
“Even if we’re on the same page [with MCPS] in the principle of the thing,” he said, “the manner in which situations are often handled by people from central office is so far removed that they can’t see what’s happening on the ground.”
Asked to address the criticisms around her administration’s perceived lack of transparency and clear communication, McKnight wrote to MoCo360:
“I certainly acknowledge that some have questioned our transparency in some matters, but let’s look at the facts. […] This school system has communicated more information, created more partnerships and advisory teams, and involved more key community stakeholders than in the history of this school system.”
Genuine connections, clear convictions
Students, parents and community members who have spoken one-on-one with McKnight express an overwhelmingly unified appreciation for her ability to connect on an interpersonal level and listen to people’s concerns.
“She has a genuine love that she shows for us,” said Cidera Dukuray, a junior at Wheaton High School who met McKnight at a school event. While Dukuray said she knows the superintendent keeps a busy schedule, Dukuray said she believes it’s “important for all students across MCPS to be able to genuinely connect with those who serve them.”
Zaria Naqvi, Winston Churchill High sophomore and student liaison for the Maryland School Safety Subcabinet, said over the past few years of her student advocacy, McKnight has “definitely been the superintendent who’s been most present and engaged with students.”
Parents concur that McKnight has been more visible in their school communities compared with previous superintendents. As president of the Montgomery County Parent-Teacher Association (MCCPTA), Bethesda resident Debby Orsak said she’s found McKnight’s staff to be “a lot more responsive and accessible than we’ve seen in the past” and said parent advocates feel their voices are more valued than before.
Another area where community organizations have expressed appreciation for McKnight’s leadership is in her efforts to eradicate racism and bigotry from the school district. Community partners from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) and the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence—key MCPS external partners—point to the Anti-Racist System Audit and McKnight’s ongoing community dialogues around antisemitism as instrumental initiatives.
The school district experienced 238 hate bias and bullying incidents over the 2022-23 school year—equivalent to a 400% increase compared with the past five years’ average.
JCRC associate director Guila Franklin Siegel expressed gratitude to McKnight for joining Walt Whitman’s candle-lighting vigil in December after the high school’s entrance sign was defaced with antisemitic graffiti. She remembered McKnight’s remarks as “genuine, off-the-cuff and really to the point.” Franklin Siegel said she appreciated the series of town halls McKnight held over the spring at local synagogues, which gave Jewish students a chance to share candidly with McKnight about the hate they frequently experience at school.
Black and Brown Coalition founder Byron Jones commended McKnight for hiring the first MCPS chief medical officer, Patricia Kapunan, and said he’s been appreciative of McKnight’s efforts to lessen the achievement gap for Black and Brown students. He said McKnight’s commitment to tackling systemic racism within MCPS by commandeering the Antiracist System Audit is something he “couldn’t imagine anybody else” seeing through.
Gretchen Gilmore, LGBTQ+ advocate and Wootton High School senior, said she’s been impressed with McKnight’s willingness to stand behind the district’s LGBTQ+ inclusive policies, particularly citing the school system’s no-opt-out approach to reading LGBTQ+ inclusive books in class—an approach recently affirmed by a federal judge in the lawsuit pending against MCPS over the opt-out.
“Seeing MCPS choose to put their foot down about LGBTQ+ characters being normal made me feel very affirmed,” she said. “It’s difficult to take a stand as a government entity when there’s so many opinions to juggle. That’s not something to gawk at.”
Besides the lawsuit, the decision also prompted protests complaining that families’ First Amendment rights were being squelched—as well as criticism that the district was opaque in its decision-making and inconsistent in its stated rationale for removing the opt-out. The head of Family Rights for Religious Freedom, a lead entity in the protests, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Asked to name her proudest accomplishments of the school year, McKnight cited the district’s college, career and community readiness pathway—a new initiative launched by MCPS in collaboration with Montgomery College and Universities at Shady Grove that reimagines student progress and success, McKnight said. She described it as a “very transparent document” built on community feedback.
McKnight also expressed pride in her administration’s efforts to “swing into action” and address post-pandemic learning loss in literacy and mathematics. She cited recent testing data from the Maryland State Department of Education showing a 24-point gain in kindergarten-level literacy—“I can dance on the ceiling about that,” she said.
That specific result has not yet been publicly released. What the state education department released last week showed some Montgomery County science scores falling in double digit percentage points, and math and English scores reflecting small increases.
“When we’re able to make that level of progress with students in kindergarten, we’re doing less of the work to close the gap” as students move up through the system, McKnight said. This coming year, she said making improvements in math proficiency—a continued sticking point, data shows—will be “a complete focus of mine and area of attentiveness [MCPS] will have.”
Lack of transparency, communication breakdowns
Even community members who expressed support for McKnight’s leadership said the district still has “a ways to go” when it comes to clear channels of communication. Whether it be high reports of absenteeism and drug use, a perceived lack of protection for student health during construction projects, safety concerns arising from older buildings or the district’s response to the LGBTQ+ opt-out controversy, community concerns seem to consistently stem from communication breakdowns and a perceived lack of transparency in how decisions are made within central office.
Several parents described feeling like McKnight “insulates herself” from the accountability of outside stakeholders. Community leaders point out that a lack of information breeds lack of confidence, and that deepening collaborative relationships will be key in improving MCPS’ reputation.
“She’s building the plane while flying it,” Albornoz said of McKnight. “I do think that the transparency issues have improved, but they still have a way to go before all of us feel comfortable.”
McKnight named “listening” as a key area of focus for her administration this upcoming year, telling MoCo360 it’s “an area of growth for our entire school system—and I recognize that.” She added, “There’s a lot more that we can do around listening.”
Praneel Suvarna, a junior at Clarksburg High School, said there’s a “general consensus” among students that more regular communication from central office would help them feel more attuned to the school system beyond their own campuses.
“If you ask the average student, they’re not going to know what’s happening across MCPS because the communication is always a little bit lost,” Suvarna said. “It’s more tailored toward the parents and other stakeholders in the community rather than the students, I think.”
She and other students said they would like to receive more direct communication from central office in engaging and accessible formats.
Suvarna and several other students said they would like to see central office take a page out of Student Member of the Board of Education (SMOB) Sami Saeed’s book when it comes to using social media and video messages to keep students informed.
Several parents spoke of central office’s communication style as “a lot of empty words” amounting to “lip service,” saying they want to see more meaningful action from school leadership in tackling some of the district’s most looming concerns—academic performance, absenteeism, drug use and hate bias, many cited.
“You can send an email to central office asking for very specific information and get zero response ever—that speaks for itself,” said Silver Spring parent Dawn Iannaco-Hahn, a former school board candidate and frequent critic of MCPS. “It’s just a lot of empty words, rug-sweeping and putting out placating statements. They have a reputation for being a school system we can’t trust.”
When asked to respond to criticisms of the school district’s decision-making transparency, McKnight wrote to MoCo360:
“I believe what we have is a struggle between perception and results, and I must say the results speak for themselves,” she wrote.
McKnight cited the school district’s COVID-19 vaccination rates, which she said rank highest in the state, MCPS’ “decisive action” in addressing a recent embezzlement scandal in its transportation department and its high scores on a recently released statewide academic performance assessment as the positive results of her administration’s “partnerships, communication and collaboration.”
A career-defining moment
Several community members said the recent revelation of a slew of sexual harassment allegations against 12-year veteran MCPS principal Joel Beidleman and the ensuing investigation into those allegations has either shifted their perspective of McKnight’s administration or, at the very least, given them reason to pause. Beidleman had been slated over the summer to move up from overseeing Farquhar Middle School to Paint Branch High School, until The Washington Post sent inquiries to MCPS officials prior to publishing a bombshell article on the Beidleman allegations in mid-August.
Part-time substitute teacher Scott Goldberg, a former County Council candidate and local Democratic Party leader from Silver Spring, said the ordeal has raised broader questions in his mind about the future of MCPS.
“If this is how we’re dealing with this, are we operating a system that’s on an upward trajectory or a downward trajectory? It’s really hard to answer that right now,” he said.
Goldberg and others said they wish McKnight’s administration had clearly shouldered accountability for any potential mishandling of the Beidleman allegations.
In an interview with MoCo360, McKnight described feeling personally accountable for the trust in MCPS that the Beidleman allegations seem to have jeopardized.
“I feel incredibly responsible for this system, and I want to say that includes its successes and its missteps both,” she said.
McKnight said she needs to allow the investigation to take place before she can fully consider how to move forward, but that once she receives the report from investigators at the law firm of Jackson Lewis, “We’re going to have a conversation about what that means for MCPS. And that’s my responsibility.”
County Councilmember Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5), who is also a member of the council’s Education & Culture Committee, said she sees the Beidleman investigation as a “big opportunity” for McKnight to re-establish trust within the MCPS community.
“Obviously the situation is horrific, but it also provides an opportunity for a relatively new administration […] to step up and really make some meaningful, systemic change and bring a new level of transparency,” she said.
Mink’s sentiments have been echoed by several MCPS administrators who spoke with MoCo360 on condition of anonymity due to job security concerns. One assistant principal called the Beidleman investigation a “very definitive moment” for McKnight’s tenure as superintendent.
“Like many others, I’m hopeful and eager to see where we go from here,” he said.