The Baltimore County school board has scheduled a special, closed meeting Monday evening to discuss a personnel issue amid increasing pressure from county leaders to get rid of Superintendent Darryl Williams when his contract is up next year.
The specific personnel matter was not disclosed, but Williams has been excluded from the meeting — which is highly unusual for most closed-door sessions, according to one source who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The special meeting comes on the heels of a June 7 letter sent to the board by a majority of the County Council expressing frustration with Williams and requesting that the board begin a search for a new leader. Williams has one year left on his four-year contract.
A former Montgomery County administrator, Williams has led the system during a tumultuous time that includes the COVID-19 pandemic and a devastating ransomware attack on its computer systems that shut down schools for days and continued to disrupt normal functions for more than a year. Williams also has had to contend with a fractious board known for its public and private infighting.
Most recently, he has faced criticism for the rise in violence and behavioral issues among students returning from the pandemic, as well as for the system’s difficulty getting students picked up and delivered home on time because of a shortage of bus drivers.
In a five page letter sent to the council on Saturday morning, Williams defended his work to overcome the school system’s problems. He provided data, graphs and links to reports the school system had written to respond to several crises. He said the council’s letter on June 7 did not provide context. Public health officials and education experts, he said, have noted “that expectations for a rapid return to normal are unrealistic and belie the lived experience of our families.”
The school system, he said, is responding to transportation issues and staffing problems, but noted that these were nationwide problems. Williams said he had cut budgets and created efficiencies in response to a 759-page report about the school system released during the pandemic. He noted that he had a created a plan to address safety in schools, including providing new safety assistants in 20 schools.
Williams said in the letter that he had worked to address the council’s concerns and had responded numerous times to their requests. “To my knowledge, no meeting has been declined and no question has gone unanswered,” he wrote to the council. He said he had asked the council to a meeting on June 16 to discuss the issues and answer questions.
School board president Julie Henn did not respond to requests for comment. Board members said late this week they weren’t aware of the agenda for Monday’s closed meeting.
“The chair has not told us what the special meeting is about,” said Moalie Jose, a school board member. Student member Christian Thomas said he, too, was not aware of the nature of the meeting. School board member Makeda Scott said she did not know about Monday’s closed session until a press release, with few details, went out about it Thursday.
County Councilman Tom Quirk, who would like to see the board pick a new superintendent, said he doesn’t know if the board will take a vote on the issue Monday. “I would defer to Julie Henn. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are actively considering that … There is a groundswell of different groups and parents and teachers that are simply not happy with the current leadership.”
Quirk said there is “an absolute lack of leadership and incompetence. Something needs to change.”
Two sources who asked not to be identified said the meeting will be about a personnel issue.
It is unclear whether a majority of the board has lost confidence in Williams. At least two board members — Scott and Jose — said they support Williams and would like to see him stay.
Scott said she supports Williams because he backs the children, community and staff. Scott, who was elected four years ago but is not seeking reelection, said that when evaluating the superintendent, the board should look at themselves. She referenced the Public Works, LLC efficiency report in 2021 that described a school board that fosters an atmosphere of discord and unprofessionalism.
Jose said Williams has her “100% support.”
Even if a majority of the board is ready to dump Williams, members would likely vote to put out bids to hire a firm to start a national search for a new superintendent. Williams then would likely stay for another year and a new superintendent would be hired in the spring of 2023.
Under Maryland law, school superintendents receive four-year contracts that run from July 1 to June 30. Only in unusual cases does a board part ways with its superintendent midway through a four-year contract. And even if some consensus is reached behind closed doors on Monday, it is not clear when any official action might be taken. The board has its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday.
A decision this summer not to renew his contract would be at least six months in advance of the usual process for replacing a superintendent. In most cases, boards will make a decision in late fall or early winter behind closed doors and then give the superintendent time to announce his or her intention to leave.
The current board could leave the decision on Williams’ contract to a new board, which will be elected this November and take over in December.
Most members of the County Council have turned up the public pressure after members of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County and Randallstown NAACP rallied outside a mid-May school board meeting, calling on school officials to bolster public safety measures and student discipline and improve academic achievement, especially for minority students.
Earlier this month, the council voted 5-2 to deny the school system’s request to transfer $33 million in unused money that was meant to be spent on transportation, special education and teachers’ salaries. Councilman David Marks, who is among the Republicans who voted down the funds transfer, said the school system’s request was rejected because “we just wanted to send a message.”
Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown NAACP branch, said the County Council had the right to send a letter to the board. He agrees with some of the points that were made when it comes to academics and discipline, especially for students of color. However, he questioned what the school board has done to ensure the superintendent is successful with dealing with those issues.
“I don’t want Dr. Williams scapegoated just because he’s an African American male,” Coleman said. “An evaluation should be one that is fair and looks at the work.”
The seven-member County Council has only one Black member, and the school board is majority-white.
Coleman signaled he’s open to the superintendent search. He said that since Williams’ contract is up in a year, getting a head start would be wise and thorough, but that Williams should be included as a candidate.
The seven-member County Council has only one Black member, and the school board is majority white.
“We’re tired of excuses,” Marks said of the school system’s handling of the system’s inadequacies. Council members said during the June 7 meeting that Williams had failed to mitigate the bus driver shortage. Marks and County Council Chairman Julian Jones said Quirk, who represents the southwestern 1st District, is leading the charge against Williams.
Shortly after the meeting, Marks and four other council members — Quirk, Democrat Cathy Bevins, and Republicans Todd Crandell and Wade Kach — signed onto a letter asking Henn to conduct a search for a new superintendent.
“A lot of our constituents have responded positively” since the letter was published, Marks said.
Jones, though, is not ready to give up on Williams, who he says has weathered several storms since his appointment, from a global pandemic to a ransomware attack.
The communication from Williams’ office “could be better,” Jones acknowledged, but “they’re out working hard trying to fix these problems at the same time.”
“I have not lost confidence in Dr. Williams,” he said.
Some have been critical of the council’s interference. The school board — made up of elected and appointed members — hires the superintendent. The council and the county executive are not expected to have a role.
Jose said the council’s rejection of the transfer request took away money for textbook purchases. “You really want to punish us, stop our stipend?” Jose asked, referring to the stipend that board members receive for their work. “Punish the right people, don’t punish the children.”
Yara Cheikh, a county parent and education advocate, said it’s the job of the school board — not the council — to determine the fate of the superintendent. “Our current superintendent faced extraordinary challenges the past several years,” Cheikh said.
Board member Lily Rowe would like to see the council attend to some other business. “Perhaps instead of engaging in political theater in an election year, the County Council might consider taking a look at the recommendations of their own Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance Task Force, which found the county statute is actively contributing to overcrowded schools. That would at least be in their lane,” Rowe said. School board members said they were speaking as individuals and not for the board as a whole.
But Jones pointed out that the school system makes up half the county’s budget, over which the council has final say.
“We give half our money to the schools; I’m never gonna say [the council] shouldn’t have a right to weigh in,” he said.
The board tends to split down the middle on difficult issues, with Henn and four others in agreement, but that coalition would need two more votes to start a search for a new superintendent.
Danita Tolson, president of the county’s NAACP, said she doesn’t think Williams received adequate support to fix the problems that he faced. She cited the pandemic and the 2020 ransomware attack that cost the system $7.7 million.
Despite the challenges, Tolson said Williams has tried to create a plan to address the issues by forming committees and speaking with stakeholders. The lack of support, Tolson said, could have to do with his race.
“Would [the County Council] put forth the same obstacles and barriers if he was another race?” he asked.
Coleman of the NAACP said that whatever decision is made, “it needs to be the right decision for our children.”
Asked for comment on whether County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. had confidence in Williams, spokeswoman Erica Palmisano sent a statement issued earlier this week in response to reporters’ questions about the council letter.
“The County Council has raised legitimate concerns about school system operations that need to be addressed,” Olszewski, a Democrat, said. The hiring and oversight of the superintendent is the school board’s responsibility, he added.