Maryland schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery, who shepherded the state through three years of upheaval in school curriculum and testing, abruptly announced Friday that she's leaving the job.
Lowery's resignation — which shocked even those who worked closely with her — comes just months before the state faces important policy decisions on many of the initiatives she helped to shepherd, including the controversial Common Core standards as well as new tests and new teacher evaluations.
"It is a big loss for the state," Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance said. "We were dealing with some tough transitions, and she led us through that."
Lowery, 60, plans to leave Sept. 11 to take a job leading an educational nonprofit in Columbus, Ohio. She declined to comment through a spokesman.
Lowery's deputy, Jack Smith, was named interim superintendent. He will complete her four-year term, which ends in July, and will inherit a full agenda.
In December, officials will release results of new state testing imposed last year for grades three through nine — and the results are expected to be poor. The tests are tougher because they are aligned with the more rigorous Common Core curriculum.
The new tests also have been controversial with parents and teachers, many of whom have complained to Lowery and the state school board about what they consider excessive class time needed to give them.
"It's an absolutely critical time for Maryland's public schools," said Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing the majority of state public school teachers. "We urgently need to take action to prevent standardized testing from continuing to take too much time away from learning.
"We need to make sure that parents and the public understand what [test] scores mean — and don't mean — when they are released for the first time later this year."
Even before the release of the new test scores, state officials have been negotiating with institutions of higher education to determine what scores high school students must achieve on standardized tests to graduate and be considered ready to enter college.
Carroll County Superintendent Stephen Guthrie, immediate past president of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland, said those negotiations are in the final stages. He said Lowery had played an integral role in those negotiations, but noted that Smith, too, has been intimately involved.
State school board member James DeGraffenreidt said Lowery met in private session with the board Tuesday and told members she was considering two job offers — and leaning toward one in Columbus. DeGraffenreidt said she told them if she took it, she wouldn't be around for the September board meeting.
DeGraffenreidt said the board asked her to reconsider. But, he said, she was "genuinely excited about the opportunity" presented by the other job. As CEO of FutureReady Columbus, DeGraffenreidt said, Lowery would work as a liaison between the mayor and the business community, which wants to help transform the Columbus school system.
Thursday evening, Lowery sent a memo to the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland, saying she would resign Friday.
"Everyone was shocked," said Renee Spence, the association's executive director. "No one had an inkling."
Lowery was hired in 2012, recruited from the state superintendent's job in Delaware. The board persuaded her to come, DeGraffenreidt said; she was not looking for the $210,000-a-year job. DeGraffenreidt described Lowery as well respected nationally and "very much sought after."
Smith, who earns $153,000 a year, was superintendent of schools in Calvert County for seven years and has been deputy of teaching and learning and chief academic officer at the Maryland State Department of Education. He has been with the department since 2013. The board has not made a decision what his salary will be as interim superintendent.
During her three years as superintendent, Lowery had to oversee the bumpy move to new standards, state tests and teacher evaluations based in part on student achievement. Not all of the moves were well received by the public.
But Guthrie said Lowery tried to smooth the transition. For instance, she worked in a collaborative way and agreed to ask the federal government to extend deadlines to make the changes. The extra time was necessary, Guthrie said, to make things work.
"We are losing an extraordinary leader, a talented state superintendent of schools," state school board President Guffrie Smith said. "Dr. Lowery led Maryland through a time of tremendous transition and progress. She positioned our state as a national leader in preparing students."
The teachers union said Friday that while they had "deep policy differences with Dr. Lowery," they appreciated her efforts to work with them.
In a statement, Gov. Larry Hogan said Lowery "has been a dedicated public servant to the state of Maryland, and has devoted her career to bettering public education and working to ensure our teachers and students have the tools they need for success."
Hogan recently appointed five new members on the 12-member state school board. Those members have taken their seats in the past few months, and it is not clear whether Lowery's views about education would have diverged from those of the new members on the board.
Dance, the Baltimore County superintendent, said he had not spoken with Lowery but believes her decision to leave was not a political one. He said the new state school board members he had spoken with privately in recent few weeks praised her leadership.
"I don't think there would have been a rift at all," he said.
As the board looks for a new superintendent, DeGraffenreidt said it will be important to understand the governor's views on education. While Hogan has no role in hiring the superintendent — the state board hires and fires the state superintendent — the governor can influence the choice through appointments of board members.