Karen B. Salmon, an administrator whose three decades in education have been spent almost entirely in small school systems, was named Maryland state superintendent Tuesday.
The state school board announced the appointment of Salmon, currently an interim Maryland deputy superintendent, at its monthly meeting. Salmon spent a decade as the superintendent in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore and several years in a small suburban system in New York.
"We look forward to your leadership. We have a lot of faith. We have a lot of work to do, but I know you are up to it," said Guffrie M. Smith, the school board president.
Salmon, 63, will begin June 1 as acting state superintendent and assume the permanent post July 1. Maryland regulations say superintendents must begin July 1. Salmon has not signed a contract with the board, and the details, including her salary, are under negotiation.
Maryland's schools have been led by an acting superintendent since Superintendent Lillian Lowery left abruptly last summer to take a job in Ohio.
Salmon takes over as states are grappling with a new federal education law that gives more control to the states and local school systems. In the next several years, Maryland must decide whether to continue education initiatives, including the Common Core standards and new state tests.
"This is a crucial time, but it is ripe with opportunity," Salmon said.
While she said Maryland's schools are outstanding, she believes they face challenges, particularly a lack of equity.
"I am really interested in making sure we have equitable opportunity for all students," including students of color, she said.
Salmon said she views herself as "a transformational leader" who will look for ways to consolidate programs in the state Education Department so there is more money for other priorities.
"I want to make sure we streamline the programs," she said.
The school board's public vote Tuesday on Salmon's selection was unanimous, though it came after private discussions in which some members supported another candidate with more statewide experience, according to sources close to the board. In an earlier vote behind closed doors, the board was deeply divided, the sources said.
The Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents most of the state's teachers, said in a statement that it hopes Salmon "will serve as an independent, apolitical voice for research-based solutions that help all students rather than reinforce the narrow policy focus of the Hogan administration and his state board on charter schools and private schools."
Abell Foundation President Bob Embry, who said he does not know Salmon, said her selection did not signal a desire for change.
"If you're happy with the status quo, it's a good choice," he said.
Salmon said she believes her small-district experience is valuable because she was involved in the details of running a school system.
After beginning her career as a special education teacher in Caroline County in 1976, Salmon moved to an administrative position in Talbot County public schools. She rose to county superintendent in 2003 and served until 2013.
She lives with her husband, a waterman, in Bozman in Talbot County, and has two daughters who graduated from public schools.
She is a strong advocate of the use of technology. Talbot County was one of the first districts in the state to introduce the widespread use of laptops for many students to take home. But as superintendent, she also made decisions that angered parents and the state school board.
In 2013, the state board reversed a decision by her and the Talbot County school board to suspend two Easton High School lacrosse players. They were about to board a bus to go to a game when two small penknives and a lighter were found in their lacrosse gear. Police were called and one of the boys was arrested, handcuffed and taken to the police station to be charged.
The state board rarely reverses local decisions in disciplinary issues, but it ordered Talbot officials to wipe the boys' records clean and said school officials had not used good judgment in disciplining the lacrosse players, who said that they carried the items to repair their lacrosse sticks.
"This case is about context and about the appropriate exercise of discretion," the board's opinion said. Members seemed particularly upset by the arrest, saying it was worse than the suspension. The board also noted that the school system had not provided the board all the documents related to the case.
Salmon left the superintendent's job in Talbot County to become superintendent of the Bay Shore Union Free School District on Long Island, N.Y., a system with seven schools. She returned to Maryland last August to take a job as assistant state superintendent for college and career readiness. She also briefly oversaw educational programs for juvenile delinquents. In 2016, she became an interim deputy superintendent.
After two decades under Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's state superintendent position has had unusually high turnover, with four new superintendents over the past five years. The changes in leadership came at a time of great upheaval in education, when Maryland was putting new standards, tests and an unpopular teacher-evaluation system in place.
After Grasmick retired in 2011, the job was held for a year by an interim leader before being filled by Lowery, a former Delaware state superintendent. She left with nearly a year remaining on her contract to take a job as CEO of FutureReady Columbus, an Ohio nonprofit focused on improving the Columbus school system.
Jack Smith, the No. 2 in Maryland's Education Department, has been in charge since Lowery's departure. He was recently hired to be superintendent in Montgomery County.
The composition of the state school board has changed as well. Six on the 11-member board are relatively new and were appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan.
In a statement, Hogan said that Salmon brings "a wealth of knowledge" to the job and that he looks forward to working with her.
Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance also welcomed her.
"I have always had positive interactions with Dr. Salmon, first as a colleague and currently as a deputy state superintendent. I wish her much success in her new role," he said.
Salmon's selection came after a national search for a successor.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erica Green contributed to this article.