Howard County's new acting schools superintendent, Michael J. Martirano, is returning to his roots as he steps in to lead one of the nation's highest-performing school systems.
"My return to Howard County is like a dream come true," Martirano said after being introduced Tuesday following the abrupt retirement of Renee Foose. "I always wanted to be the superintendent of Howard County, but the timing just never worked itself out."
While he's guaranteed the job only through June, he said he would like to secure a permanent contract and stay on for at least eight years in Howard County. He suggested his short-term contract as acting superintendent will serve as something of an on-the-job interview.
"If it's meant to be, it's meant to be," Martirano said.
More than a decade ago, Martirano was a supervisor of elementary schools in Howard County, where his children attended schools.
St. Mary's County lured him away to become superintendent there, and he later became statewide superintendent in West Virginia. But a personal tragedy helped return Martirano, 58, to Howard County.
He said that last spring his wife, who suffered from depression, took her own life. In September, Martirano announced plans to step down from the West Virginia job and return to Maryland to be closer to his three adult children.
"I loved my work in West Virginia," Martirano said. "But I've had trauma this year with the loss of my wife. ... I need to be here. I need to be here with my kids. That's the top priority for me."
Martirano planned to remain in West Virginia through the school year while looking for work in Maryland, but reached an agreement to leave in March.
"This past year has been one of the most challenging of my adult life," Martirano wrote in his resignation letter. "With the prolonged illness of my wife and her eventual death, I now find myself being both a dad and a mom to my three children who reside in Maryland."
Howard County school board Chairwoman Cynthia L. Vaillancourt said people in local education circles heard that Martirano had left his West Virginia post, and "it was in the back of my mind" that he might make a good superintendent for Howard County.
Vaillancourt said Martirano impressed her two weeks ago when he was keynote speaker at an event about diversity in education.
"The fact that he came available, the timing couldn't be better," she said.
Colleagues described Martirano as an energetic leader who will be able to heal wounds in Howard County left from the battle between the school board and Foose.
"He is the textbook example of an extrovert," said Steve Guthrie, superintendent of public schools in Carroll County. "The minute you meet him, he will talk to you with the qualities of an endearing friend. He is approachable."
Guthrie, who said he became friends with Martirano while serving on the board of the Maryland superintendents' association, called him the "perfect choice" to return Howard County's focus to educating students.
"I think he would be good for Howard County to help heal what has been going on in the past year," Guthrie said.
Frances Hughes Glendening, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said she was not surprised that Howard County reached out to Martirano, whom she described as a strong communicator with "very high standards."
"He is a strong academic leader," she said.
Paul Lemle, president of the Howard County Education Association, the union representing county teachers, met Martirano about four years ago at a meeting about teacher evaluations. He said Martirano was "very forward-thinking" about the issue.
Martirano is "a collaborative, supportive leader, and every teacher wants that," Lemle said.
Martirano acknowledged the challenges he faces in the Howard County system, which has had several years of controversies, ranging from frustration over a mold problem at a school to the legal fight between the school board and Foose.
"I listen like there's no tomorrow. I will sit down and talk, and I bring people in to work together," Martirano said. "It's got to be a collaborative process in the sense of not just in words, but actions. Those disgruntled parents, I look forward to talking to them. I look forward to having an extremely positive working relationship with this board."
Martirano served as state superintendent in West Virginia from 2014 through his departure earlier this year. Before that, he was superintendent for St. Mary's County schools from 2005 until 2014. He touted improved high school graduation rates as one of his top successes there, and was named state superintendent of the year for 2009 by the Public School Superintendents' Association of Maryland.
Earlier in his career, Martirano was a teacher and administrator in Montgomery County and principal of Laurel High School in Prince George's County. He recalled during one year at Laurel High, students experienced a stabbing and a tornado on campus — and also navigated the collective shock of the 9/11 terror attacks.
"I had a challenging year that year," he said. "It was a tumultuous period, but we built community and brought everyone together in a very positive way."
According to his biography, Martirano holds a doctorate of education in school management and instructional leadership from Nova Southeastern University, as well as two master's degrees and a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Michael J. Martirano
Position: Acting superintendent, Howard County Public Schools
Past positions: Superintendent of Schools, West Virginia Department of Education, 2014-2017; superintendent, St. Mary's County Public Schools, 2005-2014 (Maryland superintendent of the year 2009); director of elementary school education, Howard County Public Schools, 2002-2005; earlier was principal, Laurel High School, Prince George's County Public Schools.
Education: Doctorate of education from Nova Southeastern University; master's and bachelor's degrees from the University of Maryland.