In the Department of Education building, the office door of Howard County Public School System Interim Superintendent Michael Martirano is wide open. Two five-level bookshelves stand side-by-side, displaying dozens of yellow school buses, as well as family and students photos.
“If I were to tell you this is a small representative sample of the total collection, you would probably think I was neurotic,” said Martirano, pointing to one of nearly 50 school buses.
Martirano gazed over his school bus collection and straightened his wavy, multi-colored tie. If his tie or gray, camouflage-patterned socks didn’t grab your attention, Martirano’s bubbly personality did the trick.
Any interaction with the father of three extends beyond the typical, “good morning,” and reaches into the Twittersphere, where he shares as many pictures of himself with Howard County students as he does photos of himself with his family.
The former state superintendent of schools in West Virginia, Martirano, 58, returned to Maryland in May to be closer with his three children after his wife, who he said suffered from depression, took her own life in 2016.
More photos, newspaper clippings and artwork surround Martirano’s workspace. West Virginia memorabilia are among the decor, where Martirano supervised more than 280,000 students and 55 superintendents. He was living 425 miles away from his family, and he traveled the 850-mile round trip every weekend to see them.
“My priorities as a human being are my faith, my spouse, my family and everything else,” Martirano said. “I have a lot of energy [and] I recognized that that was not going to last long.”
Looking back at his bus collection, Martirano said it began in 1994 when he was promoted from science and math teacher to assistant principal at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Prince George’s County.
“One of my teacher colleagues came to me and said, ‘Why do you want to do this? You’re such a great teacher. Don’t leave the classroom because you’re going to have cafeteria duty, recess duty and bus duty,’ and she sits this bus on my desk,” he said. “I carried it everywhere I went.”
His collection reached 367 by the late-1990s – only two or three of which he purchased; others were gifts from family members, school staff and the members of his school communities. Martirano said he donated most of his collection to children’s organizations and community members, but kept several as reminders of where he’s been.
“As the superintendent, I’m the number one protector of these children,” Martirano said. “Without the support of individuals in my life through the educational system, I wouldn’t be the man that I am today. It’s personal on a lot of different levels to respond with urgency to do right by kids. That defines my whole career.”
Martirano served as the Howard County school system’s director of elementary school education 12 years ago, but left the job to pursue a superintendent position with St. Mary’s County Public Schools in 2005. In 2009, the Public School Superintendent’s Association of Maryland named Martirano Superintendent of the Year.
Martirano left St. Mary’s in 2014 to become the Superintendent of Schools for the West Virginia Department of Education, from which he resigned in March.
A ‘magical’ return
Martirano said he started his job search when “the noise started” about his possible re-entry into the Howard school system and he received a call from Board of Education Chairwoman Cindy Vaillancourt.
His eldest daughter, a graduate of Atholton High, was “a defining factor” in his decision to return.
“She said, ‘People will take care of you. Your friends and family are there,’” said Martirano, teary-eyed. “That spoke to me. Everything else just took off and it was absolutely magical.”
Martirano’s first tour of duty in Howard public schools, which began in 2002, followed his work in Prince George’s County Public Schools, where he was Laurel High School principal. He also served as a teacher and administrator in Montgomery County.
The Howard County Board of Education named Martirano the acting superintendent in May, following the departure of former Superintendent Renee Foose. Martirano will stay in the position at least through June 2018.
‘Teacher, first and foremost’
While attending the University of Maryland College Park, Martirano said he knew he wanted to be a teacher. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in College Park, then earned a doctorate of education from Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
An education student surrounded by pre-engineers at University of Maryland, he said he wanted to influence and effectuate change for kids.
“If I’m in your vicinity, we’re talking and there are kids around, I will disengage you,” said Martirano, chuckling. “I’m going where my babies are.”
Brad Clements, former St. Mary’s County deputy school superintendent, said he watched Martirano listen to everyone. Clements retired two years after Martirano’s departure.
“He wanted to understand what the kids were thinking and what their concerns were,” Clements said. “He would call me up at 6 in the morning and say, ‘I want to ride a bus today.’”
Several times, Clements and Martirano did ride elementary, middle and high school buses “to be with kids and listen.”
Martirano also worked with Steve Guthrie, superintendent of Carroll County Public Schools. Both were members of the PSSAM executive committee, and when Guthrie joined in 2010, he said, Martirano made a quick impression.
“Mike is an entertaining person, but certainly dedicated and responsible,” said Guthrie, who chuckled after describing his former colleague’s crazy socks and ties as “a trademark of his persona.”
“He has a good sense of humor and, on a personal level, he’s welcoming and sensitive to issues that are affecting students. I found myself calling Mike and him calling me as we faced different issues as superintendents.”
Howard County is “fortunate” to have Martirano, said Mike Green, a former president of the West Virginia Board of Education. Green was a member of the state school board when Martirano was hired in 2014 and resigned as board president earlier this year.
The board’s nationwide search for a state superintendent ended with Martirano, Green said, who showed “passion and compassion” for students’ well being and education.
“Historically, a lot of things that go on in education are taking care of the adults,” Green said. “I give him very high marks for focusing on the [students]. He’s a real hands-on kind of guy who you can’t help but get excited when you meet because of his energy and enthusiasm.”
Green said “there’s always a bit of a shock to the system” when any school board brings someone in from the outside. However, Martirano’s experience in Howard County and the state make him “a much more thoughtful leader.”
“Mike is not an impulsive individual,” Green said. “He’s a good consensus manager and he’s not just willing to impose his will without doing an appropriate amount of due diligence.”
Back in Howard
After the former superintendent’s exit, Cindy Vaillancourt, Howard County Board of Education chairwoman, said staff were “distressed and traumatized,” but watching Martirano eased their worries.
“I was watching our people responding to him and he was very impressive,” said Vaillancourt. “He’s done everything and more that I was hoping he would do as far as bringing confidence and energy and healing.”
That’s not to say they don’t disagree on issues, she added.
“That makes me think more highly of him. He is not a ‘yes man’ by any stretch and if he were a person who agreed with everything I thought, that would make me suspicious.”
Courtney Watson, a former Howard County Council member and current candidate for state delegate in District 9B, said Martirano was “popular with the administrators” when she was on the school board from 2002 to 2006.
A similar administrative change happened in 2004 when Watson, then-school board chairwoman, and the board didn’t renew the contract of former Howard school Superintendent John O’Rourke, who had served since 2000. Sydney Cousin – a former employee of the school system – returned as superintendent until 2012.
“[Last May], the board brought in a familiar face; someone people know and feel comfortable with,” Watson said about Martirano. “It’s a very important transition time for the school system. Mike is very well suited to restore confidence in the leadership of the school system.”
For now, Martirano said the title of “interim superintendent” doesn’t faze him because he’s “got a job to do.” He said that although Howard County has an excellent school system, he wants to bring it to a "premiere and national level" by developing more programs and educational opportunities for students.
“I define myself as a teacher, first and foremost, who just happens to be the superintendent,” Martirano said. “There might be kids in that classroom who might be the next superintendent of schools down the road. We have to nurture those gifts and help them along the way.”