Embattled Baltimore County Superintendent Darryl Williams won’t seek 2nd term

Announcement came amid criticism of his leadership style and a looming board decision about whether to seek a new leader

Published on: January 23, 2023 4:51 PM EST|Updated on: January 24, 2023 9:42 AM EST

Darryl L. Williams, Superintendent of the Baltimore County Public School System, listens during the Board of Education’s bi-weekly meeting at the Greenwood Campus on 8/23/22.
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Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Darryl Williams, who guided the suburban district through a pandemic but faced persistent questions about lagging academic performance and a brusque leadership style, announced Monday afternoon that he would not seek a second term.

“After much deliberation and conversation with my family, I have decided to not seek an additional four-year contract,” he wrote in a letter to parents. “It has been an honor to serve as superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, and I thank the Board of Education for the opportunity to lead this incredible system. I am very proud of the work we have done together to raise the bar, close gaps and prepare our students to thrive in their future, despite the many challenges our system has faced.”

Williams shared his decision in a letter to parents as a Feb. 2 deadline approached for notifying the school board of whether he wanted a new contract when his current one expires June 30. It came a day before the school board, which includes five newly elected members and new leadership, was expected to discuss his fate at a closed-door meeting.

Board chair Jane Lichter, left, and Superintendent Darryl L. Williams listen to public comment at the Baltimore County Public School Board meeting on 12/6/22.

The board has faced a rising chorus of calls to launch a search for a new leader, starting with a letter last June from five of the seven members of the County Council. On Monday, a former school system official, a former union leader and the head of the Randallstown NAACP sent letters calling on the board to search for a new leader.

“The Randallstown NAACP carefully weighed all the different factors in this decision,” wrote Ryan Coleman, the chapter’s president. “They felt that Covid and the Ransomware [attack] were obstacles. However, all the negative and declining academic data was overwhelming.”

Something needs to change to stop a continued academic decline, he wrote.

Conversations among board members about whether Williams should remain had already started.

Jane Lichter, the new chair of the school board, declined to characterize the conversations among board members, but she did say Williams told the board of his decision before making it public.

Lichter spent decades working in the school system, including when Williams was superintendent, before retiring and running for the board.

She said the board will continue supporting Williams through his contract. She declined to comment on a search for a new superintendent, saying she needs to talk with her colleagues first.

School system and county leaders thanked Williams for his service and wished him the best.

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County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said in a statement that he wished Williams well and trusts the board will conduct an “exhaustive search to identify a visionary, inclusive, and results-driven leader to help ensure stronger futures for all our kids — they deserve nothing less.”

Cindy Sexton, leader of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said Williams’ tenure was “fraught with challenges” like the pandemic, a ransomware attack, a teacher shortage, and ongoing payroll and human resources issues. Teachers will continue to work with him and his team throughout the rest of his term to make sure issues will “continue to be resolved in a timely and efficient manner,” she added.

Coleman, the NAACP leader, said Williams’ decision was the right move because it’s about children, especially African American kids.

“This way we can now put the focus back on finding the best leader to push the system forward and to ultimately help the children,” he said in an interview. He said he’d like the board to consider Elfreda Massie, a former deputy superintendent for Baltimore County schools who also served as an interim superintendent of the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Coleman had told the board in his letter that his organization favored selecting an interim superintendent and launching a nationwide search for a new leader.

Some voiced concerns about what another leadership change would mean for the district. County Council President Julian Jones said he was sad when he got the news and noted that the system will have had four superintendents in the past decade.

“I wish the timing was not so soon,” he said. “It all seems a little premature to me.”

Jones, a Democrat who was not among those who had urged the council to begin a search for a new superintendent, said it would have been better if the board had waited for Gov. Wes Moore to appoint four new members.

State Sen. Charles Sydnor III, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he, too, was concerned about the turnover the system has faced in the top job. He added that while leaders should be held accountable, it’s unfair to blame them for things out of their control, such as the pandemic and the 2020 ransomware attack.

“I’m curious to see what kind of pool our county will be able to attract given the reputation it has had over the past few years,” Sydnor said.

Williams, a native Washingtonian who spent 25 years with Montgomery County Public Schools, including as associate superintendent, took the helm of the Baltimore County school system in 2019. He is in the final year of a four-year contract that currently pays him $301,700 a year.

If Williams had formally declared that he wanted to stay, the board would have had until March 1 to tell him whether it would give him a new contract.

The five County Council members who in June called for a new superintendent had cited lagging academic performance, school bus delays and an unsafe learning environment. Williams fired back with a five-page letter that defended his record and cited the challenges posed by the pandemic.

He wrote that the system was responding to transportation issues and staffing problems, but noted that these were nationwide problems. Williams also 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 also created a plan to address school safety, including providing new safety assistants in 20 schools.

The school system seemed to make progress in reducing school bus delays. Meanwhile, critics in recent weeks have focused on his leadership style.

Renard Adams, a Portland, Oregon schools official who previously served as senior executive director for curriculum operations in the Baltimore County school system, told the school board in a letter that he resigned in September 2021 because of concerns about Williams’ approach, which he described as “demeaning and degrading.”

He said he’d receive texts from staff weekly about the difficulty of working with Williams.

“It is no secret that Williams has replaced most top leaders with his own picks, over time driving out everyone save the chief academic officer and general counsel,” Adams wrote. “Make no mistake, these leaders left because of Dr. Williams and his autocratic and punitive leadership style — decades of BCPS expertise gone.”

He called his leadership style “erratic at best,” and said that he “routinely disciplined his cabinet for any perceived level of misstep that was made or for simply disagreeing with his ideas.”

Adams, who spent 14 years with the district, said he learned “the hard way” not to speak up about problems.

Tom DeHart, a former principal who previous led the Council of Administrators and Supervisory Employees, said in a letter he saw “little growth” in Williams’ leadership skills while working as a union leader.

“While he was a new superintendent, and had to endure the Covid pandemic, as well as a cyberattack, his leadership style and refusal to listen to advice, made these conditions worse,” he wrote.

DeHart wrote that Williams failed to adequately communicate with principals when schools were shut down during the pandemic, and that no amount of pleading with him would help.

“Many of my members feared for their very jobs and kept their heads down to avoid repercussions,” DeHart said.

He accused Williams of building a wall of his former colleagues to protect him and said any extension of Williams’s contract would be “demoralizing.”

In his letter to parents Monday, Williams said he was “very grateful for Team BCPS teachers and staff who strive to provide our students with a world-class education; for our students whose unique lived experiences inspire and encourage me; and for our families and communities that partner with us to ensure our students can meet their highest potential.”

He also praised the efforts of school administrators and support staff.

“There is more work to be done, but I believe that BCPS is well-poised to make progress toward eliminating disparities in academic achievement and will advance equity and excellence for all students.”

Baltimore Banner reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this report.