Maryland state superintendent faces criticism amid support of state school board leaders

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The Maryland State Board of Education must decide this year whether to extend a new contract to State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury, whose continuity or lack thereof could be especially important as he continues to help lead implementation of the state’s multi-billion-dollar education reform plan.

Choudhury, who began his tenure as the state’s public schools leader in July 2021 to replace former superintendent Karen B. Salmon, receives praise for being “incredibly intelligent,” “very bright,” knowledgeable on policy and “committed to working on behalf of students.”

However, he’s also viewed as a superintendent who works with a limited number of people and has alienated some education advocates and state lawmakers.

Although Choudhury’s current contract with a base salary of $310,000 doesn’t expire until June 2024, the 14-member state board must decide whether to approve a new one for four years.

It remains unclear if Choudhury has told the board if he wants to remain as the public schools leader. Board governance states he must notify the board in writing by July 1 that he wishes to be considered for reappointment. The board will “consider this request in executive session at its regularly scheduled September meeting using the three previous year’s evaluations and such other information as it deems appropriate.”

After that September meeting, the board will notify the superintendent of its decision in writing, within one week “to the extent possible.”

Contract talks weren’t discussed at Tuesday’s board meeting. Choudhury wasn’t available to speak to a reporter for comment.

If approved, Choudhury could serve the longest tenure as superintendent since former superintendent Nancy Grasmick, who served for 20 years until she retired in June 2011. Board meetings are held in a building in Baltimore named after Grasmick.

State Board of Education Chair Clarence Crawford and Vice Chair Susan Getty said in an interview that they support Choudhury and his work in leading the state Department of Education.

“I can’t imagine anybody else in charge of this process. He is brilliantly smart. He has a vision of what MSDE has to look like,” Getty said. “His review process of the [Blueprint] implementation plans is exemplary.”

Crawford recalled that Choudhury and the other 54 applicants for the job in 2021 were told challenges would come in the first two years of their leadership, as they tackled reforming the state’s public education system as well as changing how employees work.

“Starting in year three and four is when you really start to see things come together. That’s when I think you are really going to see dramatic improvements in engagement and things like that,” he said. “We fully support the superintendent.”

Choudhury is facing an early review because his initial term was shortened by a year when the state board extended Salmon’s final contract an extra year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robert Eccles, a former high-level education official who left the department last year, testified before the board Tuesday and said Choudhury’s leadership style created “toxicity,” loss of experienced staff and micromanagement.

Eccles and other former employees wrote a letter to the department this year and board of education about the work environment but have yet to receive a response. Eccles still maintains a cordial relationship with current employees including one who smiled and tapped his shoulder as he talked with reporters outside the meeting room.

“MSDE is a toxic workplace for staffers. They work in fear, harassment, intimidation, disrespect. MSDE takes zero accountability for this behavior,” he said. “The superintendent [is] clearly smart, clearly knowledgeable, but clearly not fit for the role. He doesn’t grow trust. He doesn’t collaborate or empower others.”

Collaboration ‘has disappeared’

One of Choudhury’s responsibilities was to revamp the state Department of Education’s Early Childhood Division, which had several vacancies. Shayna Cook was hired as an assistant state superintendent for that division in the fall.

Laura Weeldreyer, executive director of the Maryland Family Network, said in an interview Monday that a few positions within that unit were either eliminated or remain vacant. She said it has created a lack of collaboration with her organization, which receives state funding toward child care assistance for families, training for staff and advocacy work.

“I used to have a standing, monthly meeting with MSDE. We used to collaborate on policy priorities during the General Assembly session. We had that kind of two-way street that has disappeared,” Weeldreyer said. “It would be one thing if I didn’t think Mr. Choudhury and our policies didn’t align, but I don’t think that. All we want is to get back into a place where we feel like we’re collectively working on behalf of young children and their families.”

Senate Majority Leader Nancy King (D-Montgomery) said communication remains an important factor for the Blueprint to work.

At a budget hearing earlier this year before the Education, Business and Administration Subcommittee she chairs, Choudhury “kind of speed-read his testimony,” said King. “It is 100% critical for us to have the right person who is going to implement the Blueprint the way it’s legislated.”

According to committee video from Feb. 16, Choudhury read prepared remarks for almost 18 minutes. He answered a question from King about delays in submitting some reports. No other committee members had questions and he left.

Another communication complaint became public this month in a dispute between the Department of Education and Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Accountability and Implementation Board, which the legislature approved to oversee the ongoing multi-billion-dollar education reform plan.

As the AIB was preparing to approve local Blueprint implementation plans, Department of Education officials said they needed more time for their review of Blueprint plans before making recommendations to the accountability panel. The board, which could’ve approved some implementation plans this month, now will not do so until July. Board Chair and former Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett called the miscommunication “an unforced error.”

The Department of Education said in a statement state law allows for the department to review and provide recommendations of all local Blueprint plans before the accountability board gives final approval. In addition, the department said it utilized a plan Choudhury prepared called “Criteria for Success” which emphasize early childhood education, recruiting and retaining high-quality and diverse teachers and leaders, ensuring that students are prepared for college and careers, and providing additional resources for students.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, said she doesn’t have a problem with state education officials taking their time to help local school leaders.

“I don’t…see that as unreasonable. It’s like when a kid turns a project in to a teacher. The teacher can say, ‘Hey, you might want to go back and look at this. You may want to review that before I actually…give it a grade,’” she said. “What it sounds like to me is the state department and the state board are trying to do their due diligence in making sure that these plans actually meet what is required when they get to the AIB.”

Bost said implementing the Blueprint plan became delayed when former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed the Blueprint legislation in May 2020.

“Hogan had a role in the delay. He never supported the Blueprint. Maybe this was a way to manufacture a crisis,” she said. “We started behind and it is important to catch up.”

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