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Baltimore County's new school superintendent eager to learn, collaborate to improve district's future

Darryl Williams spent his first day as superintendent for Baltimore County Schools listening to students and staff while expressing optimism for the district's future.
Darryl Williams spent his first day as superintendent for Baltimore County Schools listening to students and staff while expressing optimism for the district's future. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)

A blue and green sign hangs above the thick columns that mark the entrance to Baltimore County Public Schools headquarters: “Welcome, Dr. Williams,” it reads.

Monday was Darryl Williams’ first day at the helm of a district with a $1.6 billion budget, 18,000 employees, 174 schools and 113,000 students. His time was blocked off into tight chunks to accommodate a slew of one-on-one meetings with school board members, talks with student groups, sessions with staff, and interviews with reporters eager to know Williams’ plan for the system.

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Williams, a longtime Montgomery County administrator, said he’ll craft his priorities by listening to the needs of those who have been entrenched in the district much longer than he has. He’s been driving around the county, too, to see for himself the different challenges faced by schools on the west side versus the south side.

“Folks will tell me technology is a challenge, facilities are a challenge. That may be,” he said in a brief interview Monday morning. “But for me, it’s always about how our students and our staff members are doing. I will start right there.”

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Student leaders he met with Monday described an intense need for more mental health services, and for the county to address bullying in schools.

Baltimore County had the highest number of bullying reports of any large school system in the state, according to Maryland State Department of Education reports. For every 1,000 students in the county schools, there were nine reports of bullying — compared with 4.4 reported incidents in Baltimore City and 6.7 in Howard County.

After hearing the students’ stories, Williams said, he decided, “Let’s jump on that immediately.” This year’s budget, which includes funding for additional school counselors, social workers and psychologists, is a “great start.”

He says he’s also digging into the district’s data to figure out how to raise the academic bar. On last year’s state standardized tests, roughly 35.5 percent of county students passed English, a decline of 1 percentage point, while 30.5 percent passed in math, holding largely steady.

Black students are also, on average, academically two grades behind white students, according to a ProPublica database.

“To determine where we may go, I need to determine where we are,” he said.

Williams is assuming the position from Verletta White, who twice sought the permanent job while serving as the county’s interim superintendent.

State Superintendent Karen Salmon twice rejected the board’s choice of White as the next permanent superintendent.

Salmon said she was concerned about the failure of the school board to conduct an audit of the contracts under Dallas Dance, the previous superintendent, who worked closely with White. Dance resigned suddenly in April 2017 and was later convicted of four counts of perjury for failing to report on his financial disclosure forms that he had a part-time job with a company that did business with the school system.

White will stay on as a consultant, and she and Williams appear to get along, despite the potential for awkwardness.

The contentious, sometimes nasty, politics of the county school system could present an issue for Williams moving forward. Four of 12 school board members voted against his appointment.

Williams said he is ready to work with every board member and believes all ultimately have children’s best interests at heart.

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“You can read about what’s been going on in the past, but it’s time to turn the page,” he said. “It’s time to start a new chapter.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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