Failed search for schools chief raises concerns
As Montgomery County’s school board parted ways with former Superintendent Joshua P. Starr in February, it launched a national search for a new leader, aiming to find a top-flight successor by July.
But that did not happen. Instead, the board’s leading candidate dropped out shortly after being named and the board suspended its search, asking the district’s interim superintendent, Larry A. Bowers, to stay on for another year.
The confusion of May has left many wondering what went wrong and why a high-performing suburban school system, close to the nation’s capital, would have trouble finding a superintendent.
Some have raised concerns about the board’s effectiveness. Some have questioned the search process, saying it had a short timeline and led to only one preferred candidate instead of several finalists.
Still others complain that it is hard to know how things went awry because the process was largely kept confidential, an issue of particular concern following
Starr’s departure, which was cloaked in secrecy.
“It’s been such an opaque process that the only thing that’s clear is that the board is highly dysfunctional,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a Montgomery parent who is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.
Board members say that they’re disappointed that the search did not produce a new leader right away but are confident that they’ll succeed when they resume their effort in late fall or early winter.
Patricia O’Neill, president of the school board, noted that every year, the candidate pool is different. She said that the board considered applications and contacted leaders it thought might be a good match to run Maryland’s largest school system.
“We take our responsibility very seriously,” she said. “We want to make sure we have the right superintendent, someone who will be with us for a long time.”
The search for a new superintendent has been a major focus in Montgomery since February, when Starr stepped down amid reports that he did not have the board votes he needed to win another four-year contract.
Board members never publicly explained why they lost faith in Starr, but officials close to the matter have cited concerns about the achievement gap, a vision for principals at the system’s 202 schools and a personal style that was at times dismissive.
As it looked for Starr’s replacement, the board reviewed 25 applications, narrowed them down to a dozen and conducted in-person interviews with seven. One emerged as a “preferred” candidate: Andrew Houlihan, chief academic officer for the Houston school system.
O’Neill praised Houlihan’s en- ergy and breadth of work, but at 36 years old and with no experience as a superintendent of a major district, many in the schools community questioned whether he had enough experience and seasoning for the job.
Three days after the board named Houlihan, it announced that he had withdrawn. In a letter, he said that the job was “not the right fit for me, my family or the system as a whole” at the time. Houlihan has not responded to requests for comment.
Without other leading candidates, Bowers, a 37-year veteran of the system, agreed to fill in.
“I think it’s never been clear to any of us what they really want and what they are looking for,” said Elaine Weiss, a Montgomery parent and PTA leader who works as an education policy analyst in the District. The board has appeared to lack focus, she said. “Their expectations for a superintendent were both so broad and so unrealistic. It’s really a laundry list of every characteristic anyone could ever hope for . . . and it doesn’t give any guidance in who they are going to pick.”
Board members said they compiled a one-page list of desired traits for the next superintendent and needed to keep the names of candidates confidential to attract educators who would not want to risk word getting out in their communities that they are jobhunting.
Several members said they did their best in the time they had, noting that state law requires a superintendent for the next school year to be appointed by July 1.
“We did what we could to secure a new superintendent, but it didn’t work out,” said Philip Kauffman (At Large), who said he thought that Montgomery would fare better next year, since the search will start earlier.
Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2) said the break in the search will allow the board to regroup. “We are better to take the time we need to find the right person,” she said.
Several members countered assertions that the board is fractured or dysfunctional.
“We went through our process well,” Kauffman said. “We asked questions. Different folks had different reactions to the answers they received. That’s just part of the process.”
The board has not revealed the names of those who were interviewed, other than Houlihan, but people with knowledge of the process said candidates included Mary Ellen Elia of Hillsborough County, Fla., and Robert Avossa of Fulton County, Ga.
Both have since taken other high-profile jobs. Elia, a finalist for national superintendent of the year, is now the state commissioner of education in New York; Avossa is the new superintendent in Florida’s Palm Beach County, the nation’s 11th-largest school district.
O’Neill and others would not confirm any candidate except Houlihan.
O’Neill said the search process is complex. “Some people look better on paper than they do when you spend two hours with them in an intensive interview,” she said.
Hank Gmitro, president of the search firm hired by the board, said he thought that the pool of candidates was good and that Montgomery just did not find the right person.
“I don’t think anything went wrong with the search,” he said. “Every search is unique, and the board and the candidates have to feel it’s the right match.”
Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA, the national superintendents association, said there were several unusual elements about Montgomery’s process, including the circumstances of Starr’s departure and the announcement of Houlihan as a preferred candidate.
The board also announced Houlihan before considering feedback from a community panel.
“With all due respect to the Montgomery board, they have screwed this up royally,” said Domenech, a former superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools.
Some have raised the possibility that the exit of a high-profile superintendent like Starr might have put off prospective candidates. Others say prospective candidates might have held back from applying because of a widespread belief that the board supported a possible internal candidate: Kimberly A. Statham, deputy superintendent for school support and improvement.
Statham released a statement April 24 saying she informed the board and the search firm that she was not a candidate.
Frances Frost, president of the countywide council of PTAs, said she believes that the board should have gone with an interim superintendent for next school year right away to enable a thorough search without time pressures. “It felt rushed,” Frost said.
Frost and others also said it seemed problematic that only one candidate was presented to a community panel. “Whether that was an indication that there wasn’t a strong applicant pool or there wasn’t enough time to get a full applicant pool ... it raised some concerns.”
Christopher S. Barclay (District 4) said that in hindsight, there might not have been enough time between Starr’s departure and the hunt for someone new.
“At the end of the day, I think we came to the place we were supposed to,” Barclay said. “There wasn’t anybody we were ready to agree on.”
Houston Independent School District Chief School Support Officer, Andrew G Houlihan has been named the its preferred candidate for the nextMontgomery County, Maryland superintendent of schools. (Houston Independent School District)
Former superintendent Joshua P. Starr, top, came to Montgomery County in 2011. Andrew Houlihan, center, was the school board’s “preferred” candidate but dropped out. Larry A. Bowers remains the interim superintendent.