Baltimore County's school board may have only weeks to decide whether it wants to give Superintendent Dallas Dance a new four-year contract or risk losing him when his contract expires at the end of June.
It isn't clear if Dance — who wants a second contract and has asked for the board's vote by the end of this month — has enough support to remain head of one of Maryland's largest and most diverse school systems.
Five new school board members, appointed in June by Gov. Larry Hogan, say they want to review academic and other school system data before they make a decision about Dance's performance over the past three-and-a-half years. The board has 12 members total.
The Baltimore County Council of PTAs also wants a chance to comment before a new contract for Dance is decided, and asked the school board to schedule forums so parents can express their views.
In a highly unusual move, Dance told board members in public session in September that he wanted another four-year contract when his current contract ends June 30. Last week he said, "I asked them respectfully if they could let me know by the end of November."
Even without the request from Dance, the board is under some pressure to make a decision soon. The board cannot sign a contract with Dance until Feb. 1, but many school systems decide months in advance whether they will try to hire a new superintendent. In fact, when the board hired Dance four years ago, it started the search process in October, shortly after then-superintendent Joe Hairston informed members he was not seeking another term.
School board president David Uhlfelder said he hopes the board will decide soon so it can begin a search if Dance is not renewed. If the board waits until Feb. 1, he said, it might not have time to search for and hire a new permanent replacement — and might have to appoint an interim superintendent for a year.
Uhlfelder said he believes Dance has done a "phenomenal" job, and said he would vote to give him another four years. Several other members, including Marisol Johnson and George Moniodis, said they, too, support renewing Dance's contract.
But other members declined to discuss the issue or did respond to requests for comment.
Johnson said she believes Dance might have seven votes in favor of a new contract; Moniodis said the vote could be close. "We didn't do any straw votes or anything like that," he said.
Dance had never held a job for longer than two years when he came to Baltimore County in 2012 as an ambitious 31-year-old who had been in charge of middle schools in Houston.
As he began this school year, Dance said he wanted to put an end to rumors by putting on the record that he is committed to staying.
"If I don't stay here, it is not because Dallas Dance doesn't want to stay here. I wanted to make that crystal clear," Dance said.
Still, he said he respects the new board members' need to gather information.
Another four years would give Dance an opportunity to see through to completion some of the changes he began in the county, including a $200 million plan to provide laptops to every student, revamping curriculum and adding foreign language instruction in elementary schools.
If he does not get a contract, Dance would likely not have difficulty finding a new job. Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said he fields many phone calls from head hunters looking to place superintendents in open jobs.
"I can assure you that Dallas Dance will be a superintendent right away" if the Baltimore County school board does not offer him another contract.
Dance, he said, has a "great reputation around the country" and would be offered a job quickly by other districts. Houston, Los Angeles and Montgomery County are all currently looking for superintendents for terms that would begin next summer.
The average length of tenure for a superintendent is just over three years, but Domenech said research shows school districts that do best have superintendents with long tenures.
Superintendent contracts in Maryland begin July 1, and decisions on renewals are made in private negotiations. Most superintendents negotiate with boards in private to avoid embarrassment if they are not given a new contract.
One issue regarding the vote for Dance is whether it will occur before Ann Miller, appointed by Hogan to take a seat held by Moniodis, joins the board in mid-December.
Miller has been critical of the school system, but has said she won't have an opinion on a new contract for Dance until she has seen data on his performance and been part of board discussions. She said she will vote on the contract in February.
Dance says he believes he has grown into the job. He said he regrets some of his mistakes — including taking a job as a consultant and trainer for the Illinois-based training company, SUPES Academy, while the school district had a contract with the firm. The job — which Dance later quit — sparked a flap over potential conflicts of interest.
Dance said every decision he has made during his tenure has been intended to provide equity to students throughout the system.