In nearly two years as Maryland’s top education leader, Mohammed Choudhury has been praised as a “brilliant” leader with an analytical mind who can find policy solutions that are creative and well thought out.

Despite these strengths, Choudhury is facing criticism for what some consider a brusque management style that is driving away experienced staff members; alienating legislators; and causing conflict with a board that shares responsibility for directing state aid to education, according to multiple sources and former employees. They also complain that micromanaging by Choudhury has slowed the wheels of the education bureaucracy.

Choudhury’s future now rests with a 14-member state school board that will decide in July whether to give him a new four-year contract. The decision, board president Clarence Crawford said, can only be made after six new board members, two of whom have yet to be appointed by Gov. Wes Moore, take their seats. Five of the six will do so after July 1.

State Schools Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury. (Maryland State Department of Education)

Crawford is firmly in support of keeping Choudhury. “I would personally definitely look forward to a second contract for the superintendent,” he said, noting that the state hasn’t had consistent leadership since Nancy Grasmick’s 20-year tenure as superintendent ended in 2011.

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Susan Getty, the board’s vice president, noted that she was on the board that chose Choudhury from 55 applicants across the nation. “I think that we stand by the decision of having someone who is extremely brilliant about educational issues [and has] a passion, a commitment to the students of Maryland. I can’t imagine anybody else in that role,” she said.

When Choudhury, the son of immigrants from Bangladesh, was hired two years ago to come from a job as an associate superintendent in the San Antonio school district, the hope was that he would delve into the intricacies of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future — the complex and landmark new $3.5 billion education plan — and help lead the effort to improve public schools across Maryland.

In an interview Friday afternoon, Choudhury, 39, said he is resolved to stay if the board approves another contract. “I intend to carry out the transformation that I have kickstarted … and my commitment is 10 years to implement the Blueprint and to pull off the great things for kids whom Maryland has not done right by. This is our moment to do it.”

Choudhury’s critics say his leadership now endangers the success of the Blueprint. “He is missing these leadership qualities and is a one-man show, which jeopardizes the implementation of the Blueprint along with all other statewide educational goals,” said Robert Eccles, a former high-level state education official.

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In February, a group of 30 to 40 former Maryland State Department of Education employees formed a group to discuss what many of them saw as a toxic work culture that had driven them away. At least nine of the employees wrote letters — seven of them signed and two anonymous — to the state school board, Gov. Wes Moore and the Blueprint’s Accountability and Implementation Board. The letters, obtained by The Baltimore Banner, detail a culture of intimidation and fear under Choudhury.

One former employee, Heather Sauers, wrote to the board that “every piece of communication and documentation” in her part of the department had to be approved by the superintendent, which led to “massive delays in planning and spending” for both the state and local school systems.

A 25-year employee of the department wrote that since Choudhury had arrived, the department’s culture had changed. “The culture at MSDE over the last months of my tenure came to be defined by a lack of communication, gaslighting, bullying, structural inefficiencies and a culture of fear perpetrated by the highest levels of leadership,” said Nina Roa, the director of finance and legislation for career programs who left in July 2022.

She pointed to the departure of three high-ranking officials whom Choudhury had hired, including the chief of staff, as well several long-serving assistant superintendents in charge of early childhood, assessment, special education and career and college readiness.

Crawford said the state board has taken the letters from employees seriously and investigated them, but that he could not discuss the issue publicly because it involved personnel. He said many of the letters “seem to have a very similar formatting and most of the letters, if I recall, may in some cases express general concerns about working conditions that may have occurred months prior,” the board chairman said.

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Clarence Crawford, president of the Maryland State Board of Education, presides over a state school board meeting on Feb. 28, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

As of October 2022, the education department had an employee vacancy rate of 20%, higher than all other major state agencies, according to data from the state’s Department of Budget and Management.

Those vacancies include top leaders in areas that oversee hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal aid.

For special education advocates, the departure of a long-serving, well-respected head of the special education department has caused concern.

Leslie Margolis, managing attorney at Disability Rights Maryland, said that after that staffer’s departure, the workload seemed to be divided among different people. Federal law is specific on what special education students must receive and the state has certain compliance tasks.

“There has to be some monitoring, oversight and guidance. … When you parcel everything out to a lot of people, then everyone is in charge and no one is in charge,” Margolis said.

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Choudhury, she said, has declined to meet with special education advocates who have context, history and a deep understanding of the issues. “Some of us have been doing this work for a long time and, I think, have perspectives to share. I regret that we have not been able to do that. I regret that our perspectives have not been welcomed by the superintendent,” Margolis said.

Leslie Margolis, a lawyer for the Disabilities Rights Maryland, sits for a portrait in her office on Aug. 10, 2022. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The loss of early childhood staffers has also caused problems for the Maryland Family Network, a nonprofit that receives millions in state funds to run a statewide child care network.

“A lot of institutional knowledge walked out the door. … We had established agreements that we were operating under that the current administration decided to change” without advising her nonprofit, said Laura Weeldreyer, the executive director. “I do think communication has been a real challenge.”

Her organization was due nearly $3 million that the department paid out slowly, putting salaries in jeopardy.

After Weeldreyer wrote a memo to her child care networks informing them of the situation, the education department responded swiftly and harshly with a letter calling her memo “misinformation.” Weeldreyer said her organization’s turnover in financial staff caused some of the problem, but that MSDE had left out significant facts when casting blame on Maryland Family Network.

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Choudhury was charged with revamping the department, said Crawford, and much of that work is completed. By the end of June, Crawford said, the vacancy rate should be down to 100 employees, or about 10%. Moving forward, he said, the department will have a new structure in place that will allow it to better support local school systems.

Choudhury said the department lost many people before his arrival and needed to be rebuilt. “I have brought in a new level of expectation for performance. Because our kids deserve no less or parents deserve no less. That’s not for everyone,” he said, adding that he is proud of where the department now is and that he is hiring quickly.

Choudhury described his management style as “in the weeds.” He said he asks a lot of tough questions of his staff but he never degrades them.

“I degrade bad ideas for kids,” he said.

Local school systems also had concerns this winter when the department sent out revised calculations on the minimum amount that county governments were required to spend on education that year. The state had at first calculated that local spending would be $100 million higher than it should have been. The revised numbers sent out in February left Baltimore County schools, for instance, with $20 million less from the county government, and Anne Arundel County with $44 million less. The revised numbers came at a time when most school systems had already presented their budgets to the public.

Relations between the education department and the Accountability and Implementation Board, created to help implement the Blueprint, broke down earlier this month after members failed to reach an agreement over how to review the plans that local school systems had submitted. The AIB and the department went back and forth in public letters about its breakdown in communication. The result is that local school system plans are being reviewed separately by it and MSDE, leaving open the possibility that local school systems may be answering to two separate boards and possibly delaying approvals.

The legislature also recently dinged the department, withholding money because it had not received information and reports in a timely manner. In the recently released Joint Chairman’s Report, the legislature laid out ways in which the department was late in filing information or reports to the state. The state education department acknowledged the problem in a statement, but said that it has resolved the issue with new internal tracking and did not expect it to be a problem in the future.

Choudhury 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 has encouraged school systems to adopt a science-based approach to the teaching of reading, and his department also put together a proposal to revamp the way the state identifies poverty in schools.

Whatever the board’s decision in the coming months, Choudhury’s $310,000-a-year contract is not up until June 30, 2024. If he gets a new contract, he would serve as the state’s education leader through June 28, 2028.

Crawford said he could not discuss the board’s deliberations, but he said that it is now working through an annual job review of the superintendent. The board met in private on Thursday to discuss a personnel issue.

Although Moore doesn’t have a say in whether Choudhury remains in his job, the governor could influence the decision by appointing board members who might reflect his view of the superintendent. But, even then, board members would be free to make up their own minds.

In Gov. Martin O’Malley’s first term, which began in 2007, he talked publicly about getting rid of then-State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, but O’Malley ultimately failed. Even those he appointed to the board decided they liked Grasmick and continued to give her another contract. O’Malley underestimated the loyalty that Grasmick had built with her staff and the close ties she had forged with legislators. Choudhury has spent far less time in the post and does not appear to command the same loyalty.

Choudhury said he can’t anticipate what the new board will do, but he loves his job and is always looking for ways to improve. Of the job, he said, “It’s no easy task but I love this. I live for it. I live to work. You know, it’s what defines what I am. And so I’m proud of where we’re at.”

liz.bowie@thebaltimorebanner.com

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