Board members tired of attitude, uncompromising style

Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast has begun the final year of his third four-year term at the helm of the county's public schools, and many who work closely with him insist it will be his last.

The problems, according to county officials and school board members, have less to do with accomplishments and more to do with what many perceive as an imperial attitude. Patience has run out for leadership deemed uncompromising, behind closed doors and politically charged.

"If you asked the sentiment today, I'd say it's probably six to one," said board member Mike Durso. By indication from Durso and his colleagues, only President Pat O'Neill would vote to renew Weast's contract for a fourth term.

"He's diabolical. ... He thinks he's Machiavelli," said one county official speaking on background out of respect for a continued working relationship with Weast. "The board is unified in not bringing him back."

His reforms -- many still championed by the same board ready to see him go -- have achieved mixed results.

The school system has lower graduation rates than the one he entered in 1999, a persistent achievement gap, and an eye-popping $2 billion budget nearly twice what it was a decade ago.

Montgomery schools once rivaled Virginia's Fairfax County in overall excellence, but over Weast's tenure, Montgomery's worst schools have fallen behind as their costs have risen.

District officials argue that the lowest-performing schools have stayed afloat because of the increased spending. Most of them are in what Weast labeled the "red zone," areas of the county with higher concentrations of poverty. Red zone schools have received more resources than "green zone" schools in an attempt to bolster their achievement. The effort, while imperfect in its results, has enjoyed at least tacit support from the school board.

Weast's legacy includes successes, too -- impressive in light of the county's demographic shifts. More students at every racial and economic level succeed in college-level coursework, the achievement gap has narrowed in the early grades, and a relationship has been forged with the teachers union that both sides find productive.

Weast has until February to ask for his contract to be renewed. He has said that this term, which ends June 30, 2011, will be his last. But school board members said they have heard he may change his mind.

"At this point there has not been a decision made," said schools spokesman Dana Tofig, speaking for a vacationing Weast. "The superintendent will let the board know at an appropriate time what his decision will be."

Among board members who would welcome a change in leadership, reasons range from the need for fresh ideas to exasperation with bullying tactics, incomplete reforms and a lack of openness about major decisions.

"I believe that 12 years is long enough for any leader in a system, and that you need new leadership for a new age," said board member Laura Berthiaume. "And I cannot envision any circumstances under which I would not be looking for somebody with a different leadership style than [Weast]."

Berthiaume mentioned Weast's handling of the 2009 closure of the district's special education centers, largely without parental discussion or notification, as a reform that bred mistrust because of its lack of community input. Others referred to a slowing of reforms in middle schools and to a lack of openness in spending decisions.

The school board will decide about Weast's contract by March. Four members are up for re-election in November, but none of the challengers are reliably pro-Weast. The teachers union, too, expects to be involved in choosing his replacement, according to union President Doug Prouty.

Neither union leadership nor the current board supports a major shake-up of anything but personal style.

"We're not looking for any major changes in direction," said a board member speaking on background. "The most important thing is that the system is doing pretty well."

Prouty added: "We're not looking for something new, per se, but a continuation of the work we've already begun."