In an abrupt turnaround, Maryland state schools Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury, who had fought back against widespread criticism in the past few months, has told the board he does not want another four-year contract beginning next July.

It was not immediately clear whether he will remain in the position until June 2024, when his current contract will expire, or leave sooner. But the Maryland State Board of Education and Choudhury said in a joint statement that by the next board meeting on Sept. 26, they would “present plans for transition and a national search,” suggesting that he may leave before next summer.

Neither the state board leadership nor Choudhury would comment further.

Choudhury’s departure comes at a time of crucial change for Maryland’s public schools. The legislature has committed billions of state and local tax dollars under landmark legislation that seeks to make Maryland schools the best in the nation. The state’s next top education leader will be entrusted with managing a complex plan to implement the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future amid fiscal constraints and strained relations between government departments.

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Waning support for a controversial leader

Choudhury was seen as a brilliant but flawed leader who had been criticized for high turnover of department staff and tension with legislators and local education leaders. Former employees complained that he had created a toxic work environment in the department. At least nine wrote letters detailing their concerns to the state board of education and other top leaders.

He had the full support of state school board president Clarence Crawford, however, who defended him as a change-maker disrupting the status quo within the department. Crawford had publicly praised Choudhury’s work at a board meeting this summer, when the board was debating Choudhury’s future. The board had said it would make an announcement about Choudhury’s contract at its Sept. 26 meeting, so the statement sent at 10 a.m. Friday was a surprise.

At the beginning of the summer, Choudhury, who makes $310,000 a year, appeared to have the backing of the majority of the state school board when he said he asked for another contract that would have kept him in the role until 2028. And as recently as Tuesday, he expressed optimism that he would continue leading Maryland’s schools.

”I am hopeful and optimistic that Maryland sees that it is getting exactly what it wanted from its state superintendent, to shake it up,” Choudhury told the website Maryland Matters. “And with that comes some noise.”

It’s unclear when the board appeared to shift its support. Sources said it was an accumulation of issues that led the board to decide that Choudhury would not be the best person to work collaboratively with other departments, legislators and local educators at a crucial time. The Banner interviewed five sources with knowledge of the discussions about Choudhury’s contract renewal and the events that led up to his decision to withdraw. They asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

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Choudhury’s education department this spring sparred with the Accountability and Implementation Board, a seven-person oversight board created to help implement the Blueprint, when both agencies blamed each other for a breakdown in communication and implementation delays. In recent weeks, Crawford had announced an attempt to repair the relationship with smaller meetings of members of both departments.

Choudhury had also been meeting with state legislators to build better relationships.

Despite those efforts, Choudhury may not have had enough state board support to gain another four-year contract, according to sources. Six new state board members appointed by Gov. Moore had taken their seats this spring and summer, and while they did not have a majority of the 14-member board, the change was significant. The state school board had several long meetings behind closed doors to discuss “a personnel issue,” the last of which took place on Wednesday night.

Choudhury has come under fire in recent weeks for apparently using the encrypted messaging app Signal to conduct state business, which may shield the communications from public records requests. At a news conference last month — with Crawford and the vice president of the board Josh Michael standing by his side to talk about the release of test scores — Choudhury responded to a question from Fox 45 asking whether he used Signal. He denied using the app for his job.

However, screenshots reviewed by The Baltimore Banner appear to show Choudhury discussing state matters through the app. Subsequently, Republican politicians called for Choudhury’s resignation. Education department officials did not respond to requests for comment about the Signal messages on Friday.

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In addition, Gov. Wes Moore, who does not have an official say in the selection of the superintendent, has not publicly expressed support for Choudhury. Moore, a Democrat, has repeatedly said that he expects more transparency from the superintendent.

But he’s been careful not to say publicly whether the board should renew Choudhury’s contract. ”We need to make sure we have a superintendent that moves with accountability, transparency, high results and partnership,” Moore said during an interview on Maryland Public Television on Wednesday.

Days earlier, speaking to reporters in Baltimore, Moore sounded a similar theme: “The results we’re seeing right now are not satisfactory results, and I demand better.”

Then last Friday, at a small meeting in a UMBC conference room between Accountability and Implementation board and MSDE board members and staff, Choudhury had what was described as an “intense exchange” with William “Brit” Kirwan, a widely respected state education leader who chaired the commission that produced the Blueprint.

According to sources who attended the meeting, there had been an agreement that Choudhury would meet with Rachel Hise, executive director of the AIB, to discuss plans that involved improving literacy instruction in local school systems. It was noted at the Friday meeting that Choudhury had not shown up to meet Hise but sent his staff.

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Instead of acknowledging the error, sources said, Choudhury doubled down and passionately defended himself to an extent that some in the room felt was disrespectful to Kirwan.

The behavior increased concerns by education and political leaders that Choudhury had trouble building collaborative relationships, according to sources with knowledge of the events.

A champion for academic achievement and equity

When Choudhury was hired two years ago from a job as an associate superintendent in the San Antonio school district, the hope was that he would help lead the effort to improve public schools across Maryland.

Choudhury, the son of immigrants from Bangladesh, has been credited — even by his critics — with delving deeply into academic achievement, including the gaps between the achievement of white students and other racial groups. He had an ambitious plan to increase teacher hiring and retention, and has encouraged school systems to adopt a science-based approach to teaching reading. He will also be remembered for a proposal to revamp the way the state identifies poverty in schools.

In a statement Friday, Moore thanked Choudhury for leading the education department “admirably during an unprecedented global pandemic and a transformative time for our state’s education system.”

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“His implementation of the initial phase of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future has set our students and educators up for success as we continue the work of making Maryland’s public schools the best in the country,” the statement said.

Some political leaders thanked Choudhury on Friday for his efforts.

Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson issued a statement thanking Choudhury for his service to the state “during an unprecedented time of upheaval in education” as schools grappled with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. He also noted Choudhury’s dedication to the goals of the Blueprint.

”It is vital that Maryland’s next superintendent of schools embody the same commitment to improving educational outcomes for all students,” said Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat and former teacher. “Our state’s public schools need a leader who can ensure every child is ready to thrive in a 21st century economy upon graduation.”

House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, meanwhile, said “there is no more important task in state government” than selecting a superintendent who can implement the next phases of the Blueprint.

”The commitment to providing a world-class education for all Maryland students remains a top priority for the House of Delegates,” said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, in a statement. “I wish Superintendent Choudhury the best and applaud his dedication to educational equity.”

Republican leaders in the state Senate issued a statement saying Choudhury was never the right choice.

”It was clear that Choudhury was not the right person to lead Maryland’s Public Schools system. His management style as well as his lack of transparency and accessibility were extremely concerning,” wrote Senate Minority Leader Steve Hershey of the Eastern Shore and Minority Whip Justin Ready of Carroll County.

They said the state board should hire a new superintendent who is focused on “accountability, collaborating with local school boards, listening to parents, and ensuring that all of Maryland’s students have access to a high-quality education.”

Cheryl Bost, a union leader representing the majority of the state’s teachers, praised Choudhury’s “willingness to always have an open door for educators, his strong focus on the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, and his data-driven decision making to help our most challenged students and schools.”

The Maryland State Education Association president said that the next superintendent would have deep grounding in the Blueprint and continue to focus on the teacher shortage issue.