McKnight’s appointment as superintendent of MCPS draws mostly praise and optimism from leaders

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Members of the Montgomery County Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to select Monifa McKnight as the next superintendent of MCPS.

Photo of Montgomery County Public Schools

This story was updated at 10 a.m. on February 9, 2022 to add comments from Reardon Sullivan.

The appointment of Monifa McKnight as permanent superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools on Tuesday drew mostly positive reactions from county and community leaders.

Some current and former elected officials have praised McKnight and her groundbreaking achievement as the first black woman to lead the state’s largest school district.

The county teachers’ union, which has criticized the district’s handling of COVID-19 issues, expressed optimism about the hiring. A community watchdog called for greater transparency from the district.

The school board unanimously nominated McKnight to the position on Tuesday. McKnight served as acting superintendent after Jack Smith left last year.

Former school board member Jeanette Dixon told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that she thinks McKnight is the “right woman at the right time” for the job.

“I think she learned some valuable leadership lessons during this interim period,” she said. “She has very high expectations of students and staff, but also of herself. And I think, as any leader knows, you’re only worth what you surround yourself with.

Dixon said she got to know McKnight well during her time on the school board. She remembers former superintendent Jack Smith first saying he wanted to hire an assistant superintendent.

“I felt it was very important that there was some diversity in the hire, what I meant was a woman and a woman of color. Someone who’s lived the experience of a lot of students in our school system,” Dixon said.

McKnight has drawn criticism from the county teachers’ union and the administrators’ union over its handling of the recent surge in omicron variants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In mid-January, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), the teachers’ union, passed a resolution of “censure” of the school system. The MCEA cited a failure to address staffing shortages, student absences, adequate COVID-19 testing and clear communication of metrics used to guide decisions, among other concerns.

MCEA President Jennifer Martin told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that despite the union’s previous concerns about the spread of the omicron variant, it remains “keep hopeful” about McKnight’s future.

“Over the past few weeks, the Superintendent has made a much greater effort to speak with union leaders from all three unions and has fully engaged us in plans such as the Weather Systems Learning Plan for the rest of this year,” says Martine. “So we think there are encouraging signs.”

Martin said she expected McKnight to be permanently appointed as superintendent.

“We knew the board supported Dr. McKnight and there was no doubt in our minds that the board was going to select her as permanent superintendent,” she said.

Asked if the union would have preferred a candidate from outside the school system, Martin replied that there was “no magic person” who was a perfect fit for the job.

“In my opinion, there are certain advantages to having someone who is local,” she said. “I understand why the board made its decision. However, he is a superintendent who is going to have a lot to learn about managing a district of this size, and with so many challenges we are currently facing.

Pia Morrison, president of the SEIU Local 500 employees union, praised McKnight for being the first black woman to lead MCPS in a statement Tuesday.

“We look forward to working collaboratively with Dr. McKnight to address the many challenges that COVID has presented,” she said in the statement. “Additionally, we look forward to working with Dr. McKnight and his leadership team to improve the lives of MCPS support staff professionals and engaging in work to improve the social and emotional well-being of staff and caregivers. students.”

Christine Handy, president of the Montgomery County Administrators and Managers Association, could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Dixon said she thought McKnight had been criticized “overly” for her handling of the omicron push, noting that the pandemic had changed everyone’s lives.

“I think we’ve certainly never experienced anything like this in our lives, and I think she did some of the same things that were done, not just in Maryland, but across the country,” he said. she declared. “You know, I don’t see anyone blaming and criticizing about it.”

A group of seven pastors from the Montgomery County Conference of Black Ministers recently signed a letter alleging that McKnight was “strategically and unjustly vilified” as superintendent candidate and that it was an effort to “destroy a other professionally qualified woman of color”. The Washington Post reported last week.

Attempts by Bethesda Beat to reach members of the Conference of Black Ministers on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Asked by a reporter about the letter Tuesday at a press conference and whether she was being targeted because of her race or gender, McKnight said, “I have always been a woman. I’ve always been African American, and there’s just certain things you learn about how you move and how you handle and work in different situations.

“And regardless of the opinions that exist about how our community feels about things, I want us to focus on our common intention and what we care about,” she said. “Because there are a million things that could separate us. … What I want us to do is readjust to our shared collective responsibility and the thing that we love and care about, and that is our children in this community….

Reardon Sullivan, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday night that McKnight was highly qualified for the job, but race should not be a consideration.

“If she’s the person for this job, it doesn’t matter whether she’s black or white. … What we should be doing is striving to promote and letting the best people excel,” he said. “She’s obviously done a good job as a civil servant for students for 20 years. She’s a PhD student, so she’s done a lot of great things.”

“I don’t know any of the other candidates. But the fact that they hired her because she’s the best person is fabulous. That’s what I like to see.

Sullivan is concerned that the literature attributed to the lower classes contains ideas related to critical race theory, although it is not specifically called that. Critical race theory suggests that racism is inherent in social institutions.

“One of the basic premises is that if you’re black, you really can’t make it or you need help because of the color of your skin,” he said. “I’m black. I think I’m relatively successful, and I think you are who you think you are. In America these days, you can overcome just about anything.

Sullivan said he hopes that following last month’s shooting at Magruder High School that injured a 15-year-old, McKnight will put more emphasis on school safety and improve the program. current community engagement officers. He said the no longer used school resource officer program, with officers stationed in schools, was once considered a model program.

“It appears that this program, while flawed, was actually very good in that it allowed for a positive model of employees with students and acted as a deterrent when there was a problem at the school,” he said. “Whatever they call it, as long as it works, that’s what’s important.”

Janis Sartucci of the Parents Coalition of Montgomery County, a watchdog group, told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that her organization continues to push for transparency and accountability. She said the group did not know who was on the community committee involved in the review process.

“Unfortunately, this superintendent [search] process was one of the most closed we have seen,” she said.

Sartucci said she wants to see better communication from McKnight, especially about how the money is spent. She said McKnight had not provided a clear answer on the 25 electric buses that were due for delivery earlier this school year.

Sartucci said superintendents who preceded McKnight also lacked transparency, and McKnight continued that trend.

“It’s the superintendent. She is responsible for what is happening,” Sartucci said.

The Montgomery County Council of PTAs (MCCPTA) said in a statement Tuesday that “McKnight’s commitment to closing the achievement gap, ensuring an equitable and safe school climate, and walking alongside our community to hear our needs is a testament to her ability to lead our school system on a new journey and will stand her in good stead as she strives to overcome the very real challenges of the pandemic.

“Dr. McKnight’s deep understanding of the strengths of our school system, as well as our shortcomings, places her in a unique position to take bold action, re-prioritize our system, and recruit new perspectives to ensure our students have every opportunity to fulfill their potential,” he said.

Cynthia Simonson, the president of the MCCPTA, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Montgomery County Council, in a statement released Tuesday, said McKnight is a “relentless advocate for equity and excellence in education and a champion for advancing the interests and well-being of children”.

“She is also committed to professional development and continuous improvement through the MCPS system,” the board said.

County Executive Marc Elrich said in a statement Tuesday that McKnight has faced significant challenges from the pandemic and that “there was no standard playbook to guide any of them. we”.

“She is fortunate to work with teachers, principals and support staff who, like Dr. McKnight, have shown a great sense of compassion for the education and well-being of our children,” did he declare. “Now that the school board has selected her as superintendent, I look forward to working with her as we recover from this pandemic and navigate the myriad challenges that COVID-19 has magnified.”

Elrich noted the historic nature of McKnight’s appointment, as the second black superintendent and first woman.

“Dr. McKnight brings a wealth of experience to this position, and I look forward to supporting his work to ensure all of our children are college and career ready,” he said.

Writer Caitlynn Peetz contributed to this story.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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