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Maryland got lucky: Contract glitch could have made superintendent hiring difficult | COMMENTARY

Gov. Larry Hogan listens as state school superintendent Karen Salmon speaks during a press conference at the Webster Kendrick Boys & Girls Club to announce a new initiative helping young people recover from the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun)
Gov. Larry Hogan listens as state school superintendent Karen Salmon speaks during a press conference at the Webster Kendrick Boys & Girls Club to announce a new initiative helping young people recover from the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun) (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Under a state law dating back to the Civil War, the Maryland State Board of Education hires the state superintendent of schools for a four-year term. Because the current superintendent, Karen Salmon, was given a one-year extension, the board can only offer her replacement a contract filling out the remainder of her term: three years beginning July 1, instead of a full four-year contract. To the average person that might seem like a small matter. Baseball free agents often sign lucrative contracts for shorter periods. But in the world of public education elite, where people get fired all the time (a Brookings study found the average term for a superintendent is between three and four years), that loss of a year was though to be a serious handicap in hiring.

Lucky for us, it wasn’t, as the school board on Thursday announced the selection of Mohammed Choudhury, described as a San Antonio public school “administrator for innovation,” as the next state superintendent. And by all early accounts, he’s an excellent choice. He comes with the backing of the national Chiefs for Change education organization and has said he is committed to carrying out the goals of the state’s education reform plan as well as furthering equity and accountability throughout Maryland. Those are all good things.

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But we dodged a bullet.

According the state school board’s executive recruitment consultant, there are more than the usual number of vacancies to fill for similar posts across the country. In essence, it’s a seller’s market for school superintendents, and Maryland is a buyer with a statutorily limited budget. We happen to think Mr. Choudhury made a good choice in Maryland, even if he initially gets only 75% of a full contract. Maryland’s public education system is still very well regarded nationally, despite its issues, and the state offers a 10-year, multibillion-dollar funding package for K-12 reforms under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future enacted by veto override earlier this year. What innovator wouldn’t want the chance to shape the next generation of education?

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But we’re still concerned by the circumstances that preceded Mr. Choudhury’s hiring. The law that sets the four-year standard has been on the books since the 1860s. And the attorney general staffers assigned to the Maryland Department of Education had already given board members a heads up last year that a three-year contract was required for a successor. So why, then, was this issue not addressed until spring? This was hardly the first time that anybody at MSDE had heard about this wrinkle in state law that might interfere with future recruitment.

When the school board chose to provide Superintendent Salmon a one-year extension last year (and a $40,000 salary bump, by the way, bringing her annual pay to $275,000), that’s when concerns about such a restriction should have been publicly raised. And if the board still thought it a good idea to go forward with the single-year extension, their next best move would have been to ask the Maryland General Assembly to revise the law during this year’s legislative session to allow greater flexibility. After all, education and oversight were tops on the priority list for lawmakers. But none of those actions were taken.

Instead, as we neared the end of Superintendent Salmon’s tenure, official advice was sought in January, and Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office issued a formal opinion on the matter last month, confirming the three-year limit in this circumstance. The opinion came out shortly after lawmakers wrapped up their annual 90-day legislative session.

We will certainly grant that people make mistakes. Even those charged with a task as vital as overseeing public education in this state cannot be expected to know the ins and outs of 160-year-old laws. But the hiring and firing of a superintendent isn’t just some minor function for the 14 gubernatorial appointees serving on the board, it’s arguably their most important duty. And they failed to give it the proper attention. That’s a complaint we’ve had about the school board throughout the past year, as local jurisdictions have suffered from a lack of clear guidance amid virtual and hybrid learning. As we emerge from the pandemic and head into a new school year with a new superintendent, we hope the school board will recommit to its oversight role.

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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