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Balt. Co. superintendent: Promising choice, horrible process

Dr. Darryl L. Williams, a resident of Ellicott City, is the new superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools.
Dr. Darryl L. Williams, a resident of Ellicott City, is the new superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools. (Photo from Montgomery County Public Schools)

Darryl L. Williams gets high marks from his co-workers in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland’s largest school system and one of its best. He is a career Maryland educator with experience as an assistant principal, principal and, most recently, an area associate superintendent supervising 67 schools. But perhaps most important, he is widely seen as someone of integrity, a quality that should serve him well in his new job as superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools.

The announcement of Mr. Williams’ appointment at Tuesday’s school board meeting was a surprise, at least in the sense that few, if any, stakeholders had been told of the decision in advance — not even County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr.. But the abrupt announcement was thoroughly unsurprising in the sense that the current school board appears determined to assert its will over the system with as little public scrutiny — or even public debate — as possible. To suggest the search, selection of finalists, interviews and vetting (assuming there was some) took place behind closed doors is undisputed. Few, if any, details were ever shared with the community at large. What caused Mr. Williams to be the winning candidate? Who knows? What caused Interim Superintendent Verletta White, a purported finalist who had held the job for two years, to be rejected? That’s not been made clear either — although it’s not hard to speculate that she came up short in the area of sycophancy.

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But with all due respect to Ms. White, her rejection was inevitable. The relationship between the longtime county educator and the board’s current majority, including its chair and vice chair, had soured to the point of bitterness. Whether her dismissal was justified was ultimately immaterial. Baltimore County schools need a fresh start. It is a system still reeling from the Dallas Dance debacle, and distrust regarding anyone who was ever associated with his time as superintendent is high. And that’s not even counting certain hot-button issues like school facilities and air conditioning, the STAT program and student access to computers, standardized testing and bullying in schools that have yet to be resolved — at least not to the community’s satisfaction.

Public education is important to Baltimore County, and there’s widespread concern county schools are underperforming. That’s become increasingly obvious. Last year’s election of Mr. Olszewski, a former teacher (and onetime student member of the school board), demonstrated that — as has his push to raise certain taxes and fees to pump more money into BCPS. Raising taxes used to be regarded as an impossibility in Baltimore County. On Thursday, it happened.

In some sense, Mr. Williams’ appointment may be the biggest sign yet that this school board agrees that county taxpayers are going to have to fork over more for public education. Mr. Williams is not a veteran of a threadbare school system. Montgomery County’s share of per-pupil spending in Fiscal 2019 was $10,807. Baltimore County’s was $7,426. That’s quite a difference. And keep in mind, Baltimore County’s educational needs are actually greater. Not only are Montgomery’s schools in far better shape (there’s no such thing as a Montgomery school without air conditioning of some kind) but a higher percentage of Baltimore County students are poor (about 44 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches compared to 33 percent in Montgomery). Mr. Williams is accustomed to having the budget to fix his schools on every level.

It’s a shame the selection process wasn’t done in public view, though such opacity is sadly not unprecedented. We complained similarly when the last county school board named Ms. White after an off-again, on-again, off-again national search. We expressed displeasure at the secretive process by which Sonja Santelises was named Baltimore City Schools CEO several years ago, too. It doesn’t have to be this way. School systems name their finalists and involve the community all the time. (Boston did it last month, as did Michigan, and Baltimore County used to do it.) We hope this won’t come back to bite Mr. Williams. We fear he’s walking into a difficult situation, but we are, at least, heartened by what we hear about his character. A former colleague says he was “schooled in how to do the difficult but right thing.” One suspects there could be a lot of chances to do the difficult but right thing ahead, including standing up to this school board.

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