Darryl L. Williams might have been excused from an appointment or two the day after he was named Baltimore County’s next superintendent, but instead he kept his scheduled meeting Wednesday with the middle school principals he supervises in Montgomery County.
“They surprised me a little,” Williams said.
The principals gave him a standing ovation and then asked for his advice as he ends 25 years in one of the most successful large school systems in the nation. Afterward, he turned the tables on them, asking every principal what advice they would give him as he takes on the leadership of a school system with a tumultuous recent past. It wasn’t just a nice gesture. He took meticulous notes on his phone.
Employees and bosses say this is classic Williams style. He’s known for being a listener, a collaborator, a person who will do his homework before making decisions.
“We told him to be himself. We told him to be flexible and to go in and listen to what is working. We told him to take care of his health and … think of us,” said Deborah Higdon, principal of Lakeland Middle School in Montgomery County.
Williams, who was named to the $285,000-a-year superintendency Tuesday night, is known for his integrity, his straightforward approach and his ability to make hard decisions without alienating people.
“He is a terrific problem solver. His style is that he wants people to feel valued even if they don’t like the decision,” said his boss, Kimberly Statham, the deputy superintendent in Montgomery County who has worked with him for 20 years.
The 53-year-old career educator, who began by returning to his old high school to teach math, has risen through the ranks of an autocratic, tightly run school system while gaining all the skills necessary to be a superintendent. He is one of three area superintendents in Montgomery County, who each are in charge of about 70 elementary, middle and high schools.
The question now, some observers say, is whether someone who has never been a superintendent will be successful taking over the top job in Baltimore County, overseeing a $1.6 billion budget, 18,000 employees, 174 schools and 113,000 students.
“Baltimore County is certainly an attractive district for an experienced superintendent,” said Joshua Starr, Montgomery’s superintendent from 2011 to 2015. “It is interesting that a district of that size and complexity went with someone of that experience.”
Starr is supportive of Williams. “Darryl is a really experienced leader in education. He has had great experience at every level,” he said. “He is a very thoughtful, intelligent guy. He is calm.”
But there are other requisite skills Williams must master to be effective, including managing his relationship with the school board and politicians who might have lots of different agendas. In this case, Williams walks into a system still stinging from corruption by a former superintendent who went to jail just a year ago. The partially elected school board is known for vicious arguments and what current administrators say is a tendency to micromanage. Parents and former board members have made searing attacks against one another and school system administrators on social media.
In an interview Friday morning, Williams said building a relationship with the board will be important to him. “It takes knowing each other, talking about what are our interests and what are our priorities,” he said. He also said he wants to build a strong central office team.
That team could include Verletta White, who sought the job and whose contract gives her the right to go back to her former job as chief academic officer. Williams said he plans to speak with her soon. “I can imagine how it feels to be in this situation,” he said, “but what I have heard is nothing but positives.”
Williams said — and both Starr and former Montgomery superintendent Jerry Weast agreed — that some of the socioeconomic and racial issues that divide Baltimore County are similar to those in Montgomery. Like Baltimore County, Montgomery has been growing rapidly and has a significant immigrant population. Williams is well prepared to deal with the cascade of political rifts that come from those demographic and cultural shifts, they said.
Williams was raised in Washington, D.C., by parents who valued education and church. Neither of his parents went to college, but all three of their children did. Williams recalls an independent childhood. He took MTA buses to and from school, and arrived home before his parents got back from work. The recreation center behind his house was a place to play. “There was a sense that you grew up quickly, but you had the protection of family and neighbors,” he said.
There were large cookouts, Sunday school and church every week, and big birthday celebrations. Many summers the family headed to South Carolina to visit extended family. Music has always been part of his life, beginning with a father who was a jazz musician on the side. Darryl Williams met his wife during his time with a gospel choir at Hampton University. They have been married 27 years and have three children. His youngest is graduating from Howard County schools this year.
After several years teaching in a Washington high school, he moved to Montgomery. He spent seven years in classroom teaching, three years as an assistant principal and nine years in three different principal jobs. He has been a principal in schools with working-class families, as well as wealthy families. He spent several years as principal of Montgomery Blair High School, one of the best high schools in the state.
Weast assigned Williams to Montgomery Blair, a high-profile school with an enrollment of more than 3,000 students. He was following a beloved 25-year veteran principal in a school known as being one of the highest-performing in the region. “That is hard to follow,” said Weast, who is now semiretired and living in Tennessee. “He improved the situation without a lot of aggravation. I watched him do that with ease, just because he has that character about him. He is not afraid to work and not afraid to find middle ground.”
Williams moved to a central office administrative position overseeing a group of schools after his principal positions.
When Williams was appointed director of Montgomery County's middle schools, he took the time to visit each one for a day. He shadowed a student in every building, spending hours observing the school through their lens.
That's emblematic of Williams' desire to get entrenched in his work and get to know the people he's serving, said Elizabeth Thomas, Quince Orchard High School's principal.
He's someone who listens and then takes action, Thomas said. As the county dealt with exploding class sizes, he heard the complaints of educators and found ways to allocate resources to ease schools' burdens. Even as he ascended the school system's ranks, principals say, he remained connected to the people "in the trenches" each day.
"Dr. Darryl Williams is a true legend," Thomas said. "He is knowledgeable, detail-oriented and compassionate about his work."
Some people believe he was destined for a superintendent job one day. "It was a matter of if, not when, he was going to take the next step," said Watkins Mill High School principal Carol Goddard.
Those who worked under Williams said he acted more as a coach than a boss handing out orders. He pushed his principals to think differently, and to come up with ways to improve student achievement, said Christine Handy, who is president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She remembers an instance when as a principal she was having trouble communicating with a parent who was upset. He gave her advice. When that didn’t work, she went back to him and he sent in a mediator who was able to solve the problem.
Williams supporters say despite the seriousness with which he takes his work, he has a good sense of humor and likes to laugh with others, even about himself.
Higdon, the Lakeland principal, said Williams has been intimately involved in the recent analysis and selection of a new curriculum for Montgomery County, a skill that would serve well as Baltimore County has identified a need to improve its curriculum.
Lynne Harris, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, would go to Williams if she or other parents had a problem within the system. She found him to be pragmatic and responsive. About a year ago, Montgomery County parents were outraged when funding for a popular music program was cut, and a beloved band teacher's position was on the line. Williams guided the parents on how to effectively advocate for themselves. He walked them through ways to demonstrate the program's impact and the interest so many kids had in it. Their campaign, aided by Williams' help, worked.
Williams said he always knew he wanted to be a superintendent, but the question was when and where. Because he and his wife will no longer have children at home by next fall, he decided to apply.
“You get to a point where you feel maybe it is time to make a significant difference with the lives of the students,” he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.