Failed search for schools chief raises con­cerns

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY DONNA ST. GE­ORGE

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

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)

MONT­GOMERY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

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.

MONT­GOMERY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

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