Rumors have swirled this past week that the Montgomery County Board of Education may not agree to a new four-year contract for Dr. Joshua Starr to continue serving as Superintendent after this year. Although the Board of Education legally has until March 1 to decide on a new contract, the Washington Post Editorial Board recently declared that “Mr. Starr” has been urged to announce his departure later this week. Bethesda magazine has even speculated which Board members are for or against Dr. Starr’s contract renewal.
It is not clear exactly what about Dr. Starr’s tenure has provoked controversy within the Board of Education. The Post outlined criticisms related to start times, the school calendar, and sexual abuse cases; none of these, however, are fair. Dr. Starr was right to urge a start times change and right, again, to express concern over costs when both the county and state governments are facing deficits (MCPS may soon lose $17 million under proposed cuts by Governor Larry Hogan). The school calendar change, changing the labels of closures during religious holidays, was determined by the Board of Education and had little to do with the Superintendent. MCPS has certainly suffered from sexual abuse incidents, some of which have inspired reforms to state law. MCPS could do much more to notify community members– especially students– about incidents at schools, but preventing incidents is complex and extremely difficult for one Superintendent in a system with roughly 20,000 employees: a recent indictment of a teacher at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School serves as an example.
Indeed, it would truly be a shame to see Dr. Starr go. During his brief four years as Superintendent, Dr. Starr has done more to engage students than many past MCPS leaders, through visiting actual classes, meeting with student newspaper editors, speaking to local student governments, and holding numerous student town halls. At times, he has given MCPS a refreshing momentum for change: the merits of (over-)testing are increasingly under question, and a positive change in start times (also debated in the late 1990s) now looks like a distinct possibility. The achievement gap has troubled MCPS for decades, but Dr. Starr has begun to make efforts to ameliorate it, such as by promoting diverse school staffing. Cutting Dr. Starr’s career in MCPS short would only jeopardize the future of those successes.
Instead of reaching for a risky change in superintendent leadership, the Board of Education should negotiate a new contract for Dr. Starr while pushing him to further address many of the school system’s most glaring problems. In addition to sexual abuse and the achievement gap, MCPS middle schools desperately need more attention and reforms. Schools’ environmental footprints have received relatively little countywide attention since Board member Christopher Barclay presented a resolution several years ago to research ways to improve resource efficiency and reduce waste. Student engagement is still lacking: few high school students participated in the start times workgroup that drafted recommendations about changes crucial to students’ academic and physical wellbeing; still fewer are invited to work with drafting the massive operating and capital budgets that determine the opportunities and settings that each school is able to provide.
Over the coming months, MCPS must implement brand-new state tests, strive to close the achievement gap, and act decisively to minimize any potential budget cuts. Controversies over a contract– and possible struggles in rapidly recruiting, vetting, and hiring a new superintendent– would certainly not help with that.
Article by the MoCo Student Editorial Staff