Former Md. superintendents: What happens when school boards and superintendents clash

The recent conflict between Montgomery County Public School Superintendent Monifa McKnight and the Board of Education comes at a time when the school system’s operations have been under scrutiny by the county’s Office of the Inspector General.

Last month, MCPS Superintendent Monifa McKnight issued a public statement saying that members of the Board of Education had indicated they want her to “step away” from her job and McKnight made clear that she intends to stay in her position.

Next week, two county council committees, the Audit Committee and the Education and Culture Committee, will hold a joint hearing on the findings in the IG’s latest report on the failures at the school system to track and follow up on allegations of employee misconduct.

Two Council members, Evan Glass and Dawn Luedtke, have called on Council President Andrew Friedson to take the unusual step of having the participants at the upcoming hearing on Feb. 8 appear under oath.

WTOP talked to two former Maryland Superintendents about the challenges of the job, and what happens when there’s tension between a superintendent and the board of education they serve.

Joshua Starr was the Montgomery County Public School Superintendent from 2011 to 2015 when he abruptly resigned following board deliberations about whether to reappoint him.

In an interview with WTOP, Starr said he couldn’t comment directly on the situation involving the current Board of Education and McKnight, but said, “No superintendent is bigger than the community they serve.”

Starr added, “Whether the board is right, whether the board is wrong, they have the right to choose the leader they want.”

Starr, now the managing partner of the Center for Model Schools, said in talking to school leaders across the country, the superintendent role “has always been a really difficult job,” but now, post-pandemic, “it is much, much more difficult than it has ever been before.”

Michael Martirano, the former Howard County Public Schools Superintendent, had a similar view. The position “has changed exponentially.”

Martirano said, “It is a very tough job, balancing all the demands of the different constituencies,” all the while “staying focused on our North Star, which is doing right by kids.”

Martirano announced his retirement as Howard County Superintendent in November of 2023, although his contract was to run through June of 2026. Without commenting on his own circumstances, Martirano said that in order for a school system to function well, “There should be no surprises for a superintendent.”

Emphasizing that he was not commenting on the specifics of the situation in Montgomery County, Martirano said that school leaders do have the ability to challenge a board’s actions.

“Superintendents have particular rights that are defined in one’s contract that is negotiated with the board,” he said. “And if those contract specifics aren’t followed,” then there can be challenges on both sides. “If there are challenges with a board, the board has to be extremely communicative through a defined process” outlined in the superintendent’s contract, he added.

While the turmoil in Montgomery County’s school system has some parents wondering about school governance, Starr said parents should know that “the only decision that a superintendent gets to make on their own is a snow day.” The running of a school district, he said, is a collaborative effort between the board and the superintendent.

Most decisions, said Starr, are bound by state laws, district policies and contractual agreements with employees throughout the system. “There’s so many guardrails and so many strictures on the ability of a superintendent, or a board, for that matter, to make quick moves” on personnel issues.

“You have to be extremely invested in the success of students,” said Martirano. Boards and school chiefs, have to be able to “establish a productive relationship that allows good things to happen for kids.”

When there is a change at the top, Starr said, filling a superintendent vacancy is challenging as well. “Superintendents that are doing a good job and have a good relationship” with their boards of education “are not going to jump,” said Starr.

And for those in a number two position in school systems, making the leap to the top job may not be appealing.

“Particularly now when superintendents are getting death threats, they’re getting doxed, their kids and families are being threatened,” said Starr.

As a resident of Montgomery County, and a parent who has had children in the school system, Starr said there is a need to “get past” the current controversies. The school system “could be a hell of a lot better,” adding that it requires leadership from all quarters, including the school board, the county council and county executive.

“We can do better,” Starr said. “Let’s do it.”

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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