The board of education in Montgomery County, Maryland, on Tuesday appointed interim superintendent Monifa McKnight to the permanent position.
McKnight has led Maryland’s largest school system on an acting basis since last spring.
The board of education voted unanimously to approve McKnight’s conditional appointment during a meeting Tuesday. The contract still has to be approved by the Maryland state superintendent of schools.
McKnight, who has a doctorate in education, first joined the school system as a teacher more than 20 years ago and has served in a variety of administrative roles. She’s the first woman and the second African American to serve as the school system’s superintendent.
McKnight has earned praise and criticism as the school system pivoted back to in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is a very emotional moment for me,” McKnight said after the board vote Tuesday. “It is emotional, because I don’t take this responsibility lightly. I care for the children in the school system, as I do for my own who is sitting right in front of me. And that’s why I’m here. I am absolutely humbled and honored that the board has selected me to serve as the superintendent for Montgomery County Public Schools, and particularly at this time.”
McKnight thanked each of the board members by name, quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and referenced the COVID-19 challenges the school system has faced.
“As an MCPS community, we’ve cared for our children during some very difficult times over the past 23 months. It seems more like 23 years,” she said.
Speaking to the board members, McKnight said, “We are the right team to write the next chapter in history for MCPS together. I’m excited to continue to work with each and every single one of you.”
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The appointment followed an extensive national search by the Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates firm. Ahead of the decision, school officials said the board considered diverse pool of exceptional candidates for the job and had narrowed the final decision down to four finalists.
“Throughout this process, one candidate distinguished herself with her strong ties to our community, her experience making difficult decisions and her deep commitment to fostering a culture of academic success where every student feel safe and valued,” said Board Chair Brenda Wolff during a news conference following the vote.
She said later, “We did a national search because … we were interested in finding the best candidate for the job. We feel that it was worth the expense to go out and do a national search, because now we are convinced that we have the best person for this job.”
Wolff also noted the “historic nature” of McKnight’s appointment. Paul Vance, who led the school system from 1991 to 1999, was the first African American superintendent. He died in 2015 at 83.
McKnight was appointed acting/interim superintendent in March 2021, succeeding Jack Smith, who served as superintendent for five years and left MCPS when he retired last June. McKnight’s interim appointment is due to expire at the end of June.
In the news conference, McKnight pointed to the challenges of leading the school system through the uncharted territory of the pandemic.
“The last two years have undoubtedly marked one of the most challenging times to lead, with no blueprint and under the scrutiny of public with very divergent opinions,” she said.
McKnight and school leaders have weathered, at times, strong criticism over the past several months.
Last month, the Montgomery County Education Association, issued a vote of no confidence in school leadership, including McKnight.
During a virtual town hall hosted by Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker, several parents sharply criticized the school system’s handling of a steep rise in omicron cases that severely disrupted school operations.
McKnight said she has always approached every decision with what is best for students and strives to balance the priorities of teachers, students, parents and other community members.
“I know that there will be times in which we disagree, maybe even strongly, about how to achieve those priorities, and we should know that that is natural,” she said at Tuesday’s news conference. “And I invite civil disagreement that moves us closer to the right answer … We will not always find that answer the first time — and I’ll be the first to admit that — but I am asking that those differences do not stand in the way of the stability that our school system needs right now.”
McKnight pledged to spend more time with community stakeholders in order to rebuild trust.
Shortly after he appointment was announced, the Montgomery County Education Associated issued a statement congratulating McKnight and calling it a historic feat.
“While the problems within our school district are all-encompassing and will take a unified effort to address, our resolve and eagerness to remedy these issues remains within our collective power. We look forward to collaborating with Superintendent McKnight to ensure that the teaching profession is respected and that students, educators, support personnel, administrators, and our communities thrive,” the teacher union said in the statement.
Several board members praised McKnight’s ability to “hit the ground running.”
She’ll be making a presentation on changes to school security measures before the Montgomery County Council Wednesday — several weeks after a 15-year-old student was shot and wounded by another student inside a bathroom at Magruder High School late last month.
In a statement, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich praised McKnight’s selection.
“I have worked closely with Dr. McKnight during her time as acting superintendent — she has had to deal with the tremendous challenges that COVID-19 has created, and that is not an easy task — there was no off-the-shelf playbook to guide any of us. He added, “I look forward to working with her as we recover from this pandemic and address the myriad challenges that COVID-19 has amplified.”
The superintendent oversees a diverse school system with just under 160,000 students, more than 24,000 employees and a budget of $2.8 billion.
WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.