It has been seven months since a majority of Baltimore County Council members called on the county school board to launch a nationwide search for a new leader, claiming that Superintendent Darryl Williams had offered “no real solutions” to critical problems facing the district.

Now, with Williams facing a Feb. 1 decision to tell the board whether he wants another four years, his future remains tenuous.

While the board, which has five newly elected members and new leadership, has not stated publicly whether it will keep Williams, those conversations appear to have already started.

Four sources with knowledge of the situation said recently that the board has begun discussions with Williams and that he will make his case at a closed-door session Tuesday for why he deserves to remain superintendent. That timeline would suggest that a public announcement is likely to come at the Jan. 24 meeting, just before the Feb. 1 deadline.

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If Williams says he would like to remain in his $301,700-a-year post, the board has until March 1 to tell him whether it will give him another contract after his current one expires on June 30.

Jane Lichter, a new board member who recently was elected chair, said she is aware of the timeline and the deadlines associated with it. She wouldn’t say whether the board has decided if it wants Williams to continue in his job. An educator, Lichter spent much of her career in the Baltimore County school system, including time spent working under Williams, before retiring and running for the board.

While Williams has his supporters, several county leaders have said they believe the school system would benefit from new leadership.

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.
Superintendent Darryl L. Williams and board member Jane Lichter, sitting in Julie Henn's seat, listen to public comment at the Baltimore County Public School Board meeting on Dec. 6, 2022 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

In the June letter, the five County Council members criticized him over school bus delays, the lack of a safe learning environment and lagging academic performance.

The teachers union blasted the school system last fall over pay issues, mistakes with benefits, delays in tuition reimbursement and stalled certification.

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Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown NAACP, blamed Williams and the prior school board last fall for not doing more to boost academic achievement among students of color or those of limited means. Last week, Coleman said his organization supports putting an interim superintendent in place in July to allow for a thorough search for a new superintendent.

Some have also criticized Williams for consolidating decision-making in an inner circle of administrators who are from outside the county.

“I believe it is time to look for a new superintendent,” said Nick Stewart, a former school board member. Stewart said good communication between the school system, County Council and county executive is needed when the majority of the county’s tax dollars go toward education, but the school board controls the spending.

“The need for a very close relationship and transparency is integral to success,” Stewart said.

The leaders of the teachers and administrators unions declined to comment on Williams’ record.

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A rough start

Williams has generally declined to comment on his future beyond saying it’s a matter to be discussed by him and the board. Last June, however, he issued a sharp rebuttal to the council members’ claims and told WYPR, “I want to continue to do the work.”

A former associate superintendent of the Montgomery County school system, Williams was chosen in 2019 to lead Baltimore County Public Schools, which has about 111,000 students. He soon had to deal with public health issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and a cyber attack, leaving him little room to make his mark.

Now academic test scores are down, as in most districts, rates of suspension are on the rise and some schools continue to experience violent incidents this year, like the stabbing this month of a 15-year-old girl at Lansdowne High School.

The Baltimore Banner spoke to about a dozen people with concerns about the superintendent. Interviews with current and former administrators, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution or because they still work in government, revealed dissatisfaction with his stewardship.

They said a top-down management style permeates the system from the central office to the school- based leadership. “You don’t question — you do as you are told,” one current county schools administrator said. “And if you don’t do as you are told, there are consequences for that. The decision-making in the school system has been centralized to a very, very small number of people.”

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Former superintendents had a clear set of priorities, but that doesn’t appear to exist, the administrator said. Test scores and other academic indicators are not “going in the right direction. Systemically, what are we doing to improve academic achievement? … If we are not seeing growth, as we aren’t, then how are we going to course-correct?”

A former central office staff member said, “He can’t show anything he has done to move the system forward.”

For decades, Baltimore County’s school system prided itself on the number of school leaders who had started as young teachers in the system and risen through the ranks to become assistant principals, principals and then top administrators. While new superintendents would bring in a few new administrators from other districts, often the majority of administrators had decades of experience, lived in Baltimore County and had children in the public schools.

Williams came in and cleaned house, replacing many top leaders, including George Sarris, who was known as a straight-talking, apolitical budget guru who had survived decades under different superintendents. Others left, including the chief of staff under two other superintendents and an administrator who oversaw the central area schools.

Today, only Mary Boswell-McComas, the chief academic officer, and Margaret Howie, the school system’s attorney, remain. One administrator said few top school leaders now live in the county.

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“These people who were committed to Baltimore County … they were open to new ideas, but he didn’t respect them. He either got rid of Baltimore County people or buried them in the school system,” a former administrator said.

Three former and current administrators said they believe there will be a flood of staff departures if Williams stays.

“I think … a lot of people are waiting to see what the board does with the contract and will make a decision then,” he said.

A spokesperson for Williams declined to address the criticism.

Another leader who has left the county schools and asked not to be identified said the system needs to find a superintendent who is focused on what is best for students, values diverse perspectives and appreciates experience in the county.

Friction with county officials

Williams’ relationship with county lawmakers has been similarly strained. The letter calling for a new superintendent search was signed by five council members — three Republicans and two Democrats.

Council members last summer blocked a routine funding transfer, saying that school officials had not been held accountable for issues such as school buses running late. The district showed improvement in reducing delays at the beginning of this school year. Council members had also lambasted Williams for failing to adequately communicate with county officials during a massive ransomware attack in 2019 that crippled the schools’ networks.

This past week, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, dismissed Williams’ proposed budget for fiscal 2024 as “unrealistic.” Last summer, Olszewski clashed with the prior school board over a teacher pay plan that he called fiscally irresponsible. He and Williams eventually announced a plan to fund a one-year pay raise, but the county executive stressed then that school officials needed to cut spending to fund pay raises for the other years.

“The best way of describing Dr. Williams’ tenure is ‘uneven,’ ” said County Councilman David Marks, a Republican.

Marks, who was among the council members who signed the letter calling for a new superintendent, said he’s “extremely frustrated” by school officials’ lack of cooperation with the council. Marks said Williams’ administration has ignored council members’ input, particularly on school construction projects and the ransomware attack.

“There’s probably sufficient support out there for moving in a different direction,” Marks said of not renewing Williams’ contract and finding a new superintendent.

And, he said, “it shouldn’t be this difficult.”

Olszewski said “it’s clear” that the school system needs to do more to advance outcomes of school safety and academic performance in the years ahead.

“The hiring and oversight of a superintendent is the most important responsibility of the Board of Education, and I trust the Board will act in the best interests of our students and families when making decisions about leadership moving forward,” he said in a statement.

The board seemed like it might be ready to take the council’s advice to start a search back in June. Board members held a special meeting to discuss a personnel matter, but no search was started. Williams had defended his leadership by firing back at the council in a five-page letter.

Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Darryl Williams sits inside the Baltimore County Council chambers in April 2022.
Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Darryl Williams sits inside the Baltimore County Council chambers in April 2022. (Taylor DeVille/The Baltimore Banner) (Taylor DeVille/Taylor DeVille/The Baltimore Banner)

He referenced the challenges posed by the pandemic. He said 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 safety in schools, including providing new safety assistants in 20 schools.

Williams has defenders

In the following board meeting, others came to his defense.

They included state Del. Sheila Ruth, a Democrat who represents Baltimore County. She expressed gratitude for Williams during a public comment at the June 14 meeting, as did former student member Omer Rashid and Baltimore County NAACP head Danita Tolson.

Tolson said in an interview Tuesday that she still supports Williams.

“I think he’s doing as much [of a good job as] he can do with the community support that he’s given,” she said. “I think if he had more support, he would be able to go much farther.”

She said switching leaders can make the system unstable and have a negative impact on students. It takes a few years to learn what works and what doesn’t, but a new person would have to learn the job all over again. She also noted that the most recent superintendent turnovers have involved people of color. She said Williams, who is Black, should at least have more time.

“Maybe after this go-around and nothing improves,” the board can give someone else a try, Tolson said.

Union leaders for AFSCME local 434, Education Support Professionals of Baltimore County and the Organization of Professional Employees have said they want Williams to return. They said they appreciate having a seat at the table and Williams treating them like the bigger unions.

“This is the first time in my 12-year history with the county that I was able to have direct contact with the superintendent,” said Bryan Epps, leader of the AFSCME chapter. “The raises that my department received this year are the highest raises they have received in their lifetime of [working in] Baltimore County.”

Williams also has the support of County Council Chair Julian Jones, a Democrat who did not sign the letter calling for Williams’ replacement. Jones said Williams has had to “deal with one thing after another” since he’s started, and that he doesn’t think the school system needs more turnover.

Board member Maggie Litz Domanowski said in an interview on Tuesday before a school board meeting that she wasn’t sure whether Williams should stay or go, and wanted to know what the superintendent wanted.

What’s more pressing, she said, is for both the superintendent and the board to continue working together, especially with discussions about the budget starting soon.

“We’re just trying to be … working together as a cohesive team,” Domanowski said. “But we also need to hold each other accountable.”

Williams was confronted with a multitude of issues when he arrived. The previous permanent superintendent had been convicted of four counts of perjury and served time in jail. An interim superintendent was hired for the job, but the board’s decision was overruled by the state school superintendent.

A native Washingtonian, Williams brought an outsider’s perspective. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Hampton University and a master’s degree in educational administration from American University, he earned his doctorate in educational policy and leadership from the University of Maryland, College Park. He taught math at his alma mater in Washington, then moved to the Montgomery County Public Schools, where he rose over 25 years from math teacher to principal at three high schools and then associate superintendent. He and his wife, Shellie Bronson Williams, live in the county and are the parents of three young adults, according to his official bio.

LaShaune Stitt, the chair of the Northwest Area Education Advisory Council, said she has mixed views on whether Williams should stay. She said he’s “weathered the storm” when it came to personal attacks and criticism about his response to the ransomware attack and pandemic. But she said improvements are needed when it comes to communicating with stakeholders and getting to know parents and students better.

As one of the few Black male leaders in the system, Williams should be a leader that young Black men can “not only identify with but be motivated by,” Stitt said.

Still, Stitt, who lost a primary election for the District 2 seat that Lichter now holds, wondered if Williams’ staying a few more years would move the system forward. Or would it be harmful to kids like her granddaughter, now in elementary school but who’d be in middle school by the time a second Williams term ends?

“What if things go the same way they’re going?” Stitt asked. “Parents don’t do well with stuff like that.”

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