By Kevin O’Rourke
It is unclear if he wanted to leave for greener pastures or if the Board of Education was unhappy with his leadership but essentially Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joshua P. Starr gave two weeks-notice that he is leaving his post in MCPS today at Board of Education Headquarters in Rockville.
In a puzzling move that left many reporters wondering exactly why, the Board of Education and Starr announced that both parties had “reached a mutual agreement that will end Dr. Starr’s tenure with Montgomery County Public Schools.” It is not clear if Starr wanted to leave for greener pastures or the Board of Education was unhappy with his performance.
At a meeting earlier Tuesday morning the Board unanimously voted to approve a departure agreement that enables MCPS to immediately begin a search for a new superintendent and for Starr to pursue new career opportunities. Starr asked to be released from his current contract and will resign effective February 16.
“After much discussion,” said Board of Education president Patricia O’Neill as she and Starr addressed the media, “the Board and Dr. Starr agreed it would be in the best interest of the district to appoint a new leader to carry forward the Board’s vision. The agreement reached today will allow the Board to move forward with a national search for a new superintendent and will allow Dr. Starr to pursue other professional opportunities. It is a fair agreement that allows both sides to focus on the future. The Board deeply appreciates the work he has done in our district over the past three and-a-half years.”
"Many of you have heard me say that I consider being the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools one of the best jobs in public education,” Starr told the media. “Even today, I still feel that way. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as the superintendent of MCPS for the past three-and-a-half years. I want to thank the Board for providing me with the opportunity to lead one of the best school districts in the country. I am very proud of the work we have done during my time here.”
In recent weeks, the Board of Education has been deliberating about Starr’s future with the district and whether to offer him a new four-year contract. After much discussion, the Board and Starr agreed it would be in the best interest of the district to appoint a new leader to carry forward the Board’s vision.
At the meeting on Tuesday morning, the Board recommended Larry A. Bowers, currently the district’s chief operating officer, to serve as interim superintendent of schools effective February 16. Bowers appointment was approved by Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Lillian M. Lowery, was announced by MCPS shortly after 4:00 pm Tuesday. “I extend my best wishes to the Board and Mr. Bowers for a successful transition,” read the approval letter from State Supt. Lowery.
“I wish to thank Dr. Starr for his leadership and commitment to Montgomery County Public Schools over these past four years,” said O’Neill. “He has brought to our County a unique perspective on how our children learn best and helped implement best practices to help our students succeed. His passion and dedication to our kids was evident under his leadership and I wish him all the success in his future endeavors.”
“He is a thoughtful, intelligent leader,” said O’Neill of Starr. “We wish him nothing but the very best in the future. The Board will quickly begin the search for a new superintendent. The first step will take place later this month with the hiring of a search firm to assist us in this work. We will move as quickly as possible in this process, with a goal of having a new superintendent in place by July 1.”
Even as the Board of Ed was preparing to show Starr the door last week, MCPS was touting Maryland State Education Department figures showing increases in high school graduation rates over the three years that Starr has been at the helm of the school district.
Starr mentioned the success in his remarks, “The work we have been doing is getting results. Just last week, the state released graduation rate data. I am proud that our graduation rate has risen for each of the three years I have been here and the achievement gap has narrowed for all subgroups. I am incredibly proud of this progress, but I also know there is much more work to be done.”
Starr’s time as superintendent hasn’t been without missteps. Many parents were concerned with the way the district handled informing parents regarding sexual assaults which occurred in MCPS schools in the last 12 months, including one incident at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown.
The Board also received an open letter from the former principal at Paint Branch High School questioning if Starr should remain as superintendent. The letter from Jeanette Dixon said, “A particularly egregious misstep that adversely affected students and staff was his Innovation schools initiative. This program labeled high schools, undercut their principals, and was an appalling example of non-collaboration, lack of inclusiveness, and lack of transparency and communication.”
“Additionally, a good deal of time, energy, and money has been spent on the following initiatives that have not made a difference for students and staff: change in bell times, the hurried rollout of staff surveys, an alternative school that will make a difference for our at-risk students, closing the achievement gap, failing mathematics final examination scores, High School Plus, and community engagement,” wrote Dixon.
She ended the letter saying, “There are people out there who passionate about the education of all of our students, and can lead our diverse school system. The education of our children does not have the luxury of four more years of nonprogress.”
However, none of these topics were address today as both Starr and O’Neill took questions from the media. Reporters continually asked for solid reasons for Starr’s departure but were met with only variations of “The Board has decided to seek a change in leadership.”
At one point, O’Neill who said that she has had a “wonderful working relationship” with Starr said, “We have decided to change quarterbacks.”
“A Superintendent is the steward of the community’s values,” said Starr, “as manifested through an elected Board of Education. No superintendent is bigger than the system she or he leads, and I understand and respect this Board’s desire to have a different leader and a different direction.”
And don’t expect any board members or Starr to begin speaking frankly about the subject at any time soon, as the approved agreement includes the following, “Board members and the Superintendent shall refrain from making disparaging remarks regarding the other. This provision shall not be construed to prohibit the Board or the Superintendent from discussing the school systems objectives, policies, practices, programs, operations and the like.”
Under the approved agreement, Starr will receive the remainder of the salary he is owed under his contract, payment for any unused sick and annual leave in accordance with his contract, and health insurance benefits through the end of 2015. The accrued but unused vacation, sick and personal leave payment amounts to $46,583.96. The Board has also agreed to pay for Starr’s $2,000 attorney’s fee for services needed in connection with his departure.
Starr’s interim replacement, Larry Bowers is currently in his 37th year at MCPS—having served as chief operating officer for the last 16 years. He also has served as deputy superintendent, chief financial officer, budget director, assistant to the deputy superintendent, and assistant to the Board of Education. Bowers has guided strategic planning and the implementation of continuous improvement in MCPS using the Malcolm Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence. In 2010, under Bowers’ leadership, MCPS was awarded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award—the nation’s highest honor for organizational excellence.
“MCPS is a strong school system because of the exceptional women and men who dedicate their lives to serving our children. We will continue to deliver a high-quality education for every child in this time of transition,” Bowers said. “The executive leadership team and I will ensure that all operations continue normally and that schools have the support they need to help every child succeed.”
“He knows the system inside and out,” said O’Neill of Bowers, “and I can think of no one more suited to provide the stable, even-handed leadership we need in this time of transition. While I know these types of transitions can be unsettling, I want to be clear: This district has been around for a long time and it is bigger than any one person or one group of people.”