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'That is not how things have operated': Baltimore County school board kept vote on superintendent secret

The Baltimore County school board kept the name of its new superintendent unusually secret until a quick vote was taken at a regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night. Even County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. had no idea.

He wasn’t alone.

School board chair Kathleen Causey announced shortly before 8 p.m. Tuesday that the board would vote on the appointment of Darryl L. Williams, a Montgomery County administrator. The teachers union president, PTA president and county leaders were all in the room and surprised. Just minutes before, two legislators had made a public plea to the board to make Interim Superintendent Verletta White the new superintendent, unaware that the decision had been made behind closed doors and that the formal vote was imminent.

Olszewski said he learned about the news when it was reported. “Typically, that is not how things have operated. I would have liked to have received” advance notice, he said. Despite the abrupt announcement, Olszewski said, Williams clearly has a lot of credentials to manage the big, diverse county school system. He planned to talk to him by phone later Wednesday.

Immediately after the 8-4 vote, the meeting went on without comment from any of the board members, and none talked about why they selected Williams. Several board members declined to comment as they left the meeting. Causey said the board, on the advice of its search firm, Ray and Associates, had decided to make the search process confidential. Board members signed a confidentiality agreement with one another and the search firm.

“It was important to us as a board that the community would be informed at the same time,” Causey said.

The quick vote with no notice is a sharp break from the typical practice of school districts in the Baltimore area.

“The past practice has been to put the finalists — usually two or three finalists — to put the names out to stakeholders and allow the community groups to meet the finalists before a decision is made by the board,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing the majority of teachers in the state.

That approach has been used to build consensus for the candidate who is selected, but in this case, little was known about the Montgomery County administrator.

Williams, 53, is an area associate superintendent in the office of school support and improvement, overseeing a large group of elementary, middle and high schools. He has been a high school principal in Montgomery and a teacher in Washington, D.C. “One of the things that was important was his continued length of service in one jurisdiction in Maryland,” Causey said, adding that he had started as a teacher and moved up the ranks, using his experience as a steppingstone.

Christopher Berry, now a principal in Frederick County, has known Williams for about two decades. They worked together at Montgomery’s James Hubert Blake High School, and Williams later became Berry's boss.

“He is just a quality individual of the highest integrity,” Berry said.

Asked about how Williams might navigate the divisions within the board, Berry says the county's new superintendent isn’t one to wade into pettiness.

“Darryl is no drama,” he said. “He is the kind of person the citizens of Baltimore County will very much appreciate. He will come in, roll up his sleeves and get to work.”

Williams is still negotiating a contract with the school board, but he is expected to make about $285,000. He could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

Board member Roger Hayden has been on both sides of Baltimore County government — the Republican served as county executive from 1990 to 1994 and as school board president from 1981 to 1987.

Hayden said he was “surprised” Causey did not give Olszewski notice about the vote. “Normally the county executive would get a keep-this-under-your-hat call about what we’re going to do,” said Hayden, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Larry Hogan. Hayden said he would have “given a courtesy call to the county executive and probably the County Council chair if not all of the members.”

Del. Stephen Lafferty, a Towson Democrat, said he and many others in the county had no indication that a vote was coming. “It is unusual,” Lafferty said. “Previous boards have not acted this way.”

White had had support on the board and had been a candidate for the job since she was named interim superintendent two years ago. But the board leadership had a testy relationship with White, and some education advocates argued that even if White was the best candidate she couldn’t be effective under the current leadership.

“I didn’t expect this new board to appoint her,” said Lafferty, who supported White. “Having someone who has come up through the system is a stabilizing force.”

Unfortunately, he added, White’s reputation was tarnished by her association with Dallas Dance, the former superintendent who was convicted of four counts of perjury and sent to prison last year for failing to disclose that he had a part-time job with a consulting business that had a contract with the school system.

White had been made interim superintendent when Dance, who was under investigation, announced in April 2017 that he was leaving. White had been chief academic officer during Dance’s tenure. She also made mistakes in filling out her financial disclosure forms, although they were less consequential. She was found to have violated the ethics code and the remedy was to revise the forms, which she had already done.

A clause in her contract allows White to remain in the former position for a year. She has not said whether she will stay.

“Everything people pointed at him was also laid at her feet,” Hayden said. He said he “was disappointed with a capital D.”

Of all of the candidates, Hayden said, White pitched “very impressive” plans for the future of the Baltimore County school system. The other candidates talked about “how they can fit into the system.”

But he said he would work with Williams to help students achieve their best.

“We wish the new guy well because that means the system and the kids do well, which is all I’m worried about,” Hayden said.

Olszewski said the years of discussing who would be the next superintendent are over. “The longstanding uncertainty has been hard for the county,” he said.

And even White’s supporters seemed ready to move on.

“I am excited about working with Mr. Williams,” Olszewski said, noting the problems that need to be addressed, including aging school buildings.

Cheryl Pasteur, a newly elected board member, voted for White and was “surprised” by the 8-4 vote in favor of Williams.

“I stand on my firm belief that she is outstanding,” Pasteur said. “She has been an incredible asset to the system. It saddens me that she will not be our superintendent.”

But, she said she would fully support Williams as long as he is putting the needs of students first. “I’m going to support Dr. Williams as long as he is about the children,” said Pasteur, a former principal of Randallstown High School. “If Dr. Williams is allowed to do what he wants to do for our system, he will be an accomplished superintendent,” she said. “I have no negatives about him.”

Board members interviewed six finalists for the position over the past few weeks at off-campus conference rooms around the region.

“I haven’t slept in ages trying to go through all this,” Pasteur said. “We had robust conversations.”

But she said Causey provided for a process that did not cater to one faction over another.

“My only concern was that it was a fair and equitable process and that no one had more of a vote than the next person,” she said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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