Michael J. Martirano, a former state superintendent of West Virginia schools was selected by Howard County school board to be the acting superintendent, replacing retiring superintendent Renee Foose. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
Embattled Howard County schools superintendent Renee Foose left her job Tuesday, bringing victory to her critics on the school board who have called for new leadership.
The board immediately named Michael Martirano, a former state superintendent of schools in West Virginia, as acting superintendent. Martirano previously worked in Maryland as superintendent of St. Mary's County schools and director of elementary education for the Howard County system.
The school board announced Foose's immediate "retirement" and the selection of Martirano after a series of closed meetings that ended Tuesday afternoon.
The board and Foose had quietly negotiated terms of her departure for months, County Executive Allan Kittleman acknowledged Tuesday, but Foose and board members refused to reveal the financial terms that induced her to leave with more than three years left on her four-year contract.
The school system's spokesman told The Baltimore Sun to submit a request for the details under Maryland's Public Information Act and said later the board would release the terms of the agreement Wednesday.
Martirano will serve as acting superintendent through June 30, officials said. The board is expected to decide at its May 18 meeting whether to name him interim superintendent for another year; award him a full four-year contract as superintendent; or name someone else to run the school system.
He made clear he would like to stay. "I will hit the ground running tonight," he said in an interview, adding that he hopes to secure a long-term contract with Howard County.
Foose's decision to step down ends an escalating power struggle between the fifth-year superintendent and a new majority that took control of the school board in December. The rival sides have been locked in a costly lawsuit that threatened to disrupt Maryland's sixth-largest school system, a district with 76 schools and 55,000 students that consistently ranks among the best in the nation.
In an interview with The Sun, Foose, 50, said she was bound by confidentiality requirements from discussing her severance, but was pleased to move on.
"Boards of education have become extremely politicized. That makes the job challenging — still rewarding, but challenging," Foose said. "What we need to do is step back and consider public policy about what the role of boards are and what the role of superintendents are."
While her dispute with the board gave rise to confrontation at public meetings, Kittleman was serving as their mediator as they conducted settlement talks that began about four months ago, his spokesman Andy Barth said.
"The growing discord was not productive and had the potential to negatively impact students, teachers and parents," Kittleman said in a statement Tuesday. "I encouraged a solution outside of the legal system and I'm glad that I was able to play a part in mediating the resolution."
Board chairwoman Cynthia Vaillancourt said Foose's departure was effective immediately. She said Martirano's pay will be commensurate with Foose's $273,000 a year contract; the board renewed Foose's four-year contract last year.
In a statement from the board, Vaillancourt expressed "appreciation to Dr. Renee Foose for her commitment and service to the Howard County Public School System."
In 2012, Foose became the first woman to run the Howard County schools. She was praised then as a seasoned educator with a steady hand. Five years later, her relationship with the board soured. She sued its members in January, accusing them of undermining her authority.
Board member Christine O'Connor said new board members were determined to drive out Foose.
"In any way, shape or form — that was their priority," she said. "I'm glad she was able to retire and move on with her life so she doesn't have to deal with all the negativity that they imposed on her."
During Foose's tenure, Howard County schools scored the highest in Maryland on state and national academic measures in the past three years, she noted in her lawsuit. The county's graduation rate peaked at 93.5 percent under Foose in fiscal year 2015, her lawyers wrote.
She launched sweeping plans to transform elementary education with foreign language lessons and refocused subjects. She acknowledged deep-rooted racial disparities in the school district. And her strategic five-year plan was unveiled in 2013 as the first to include recommendations from the community, said Ann De Lacy, a former board member who supports Foose.
"I'm shocked," De Lacy said. "It's a sad day for public education in Howard County and a big win for the teachers union."
Foose's opponents on the board argue they were elected to rein in a superintendent regarded as both secretive and dictatorial. Foose was sharply criticized over her handling of mold found at Glenwood Middle School in 2015. Critics said she delayed telling parents and teachers about it, and they allege students became sick as a result.
Her critics grew increasingly organized since then. They circulated an online petition to have Foose fired. Last month, some rallied outside county offices; one woman carried a sign with "Cut Foose Loose."
The Howard County Education Association, a union with 5,500 members, surveyed more than 3,000 of its school district employees and announced in March that support for Foose has plunged to 10.8 percent.
"It is a new day in HoCo because of strong leadership by the recently elected board," union president Paul Lemle said in a statement Tuesday. "This leadership change gives us the opportunity to refocus on the things that are most important."
The dispute escalated last month after the board voted to dismantle Foose's scholarship program to send aspiring teachers from low-income families to McDaniel College. The Teachers for Tomorrow program was once praised as an innovative approach to diversify the teaching corps in Howard County schools. Board members said Foose failed to raise enough money to sustain the program.
McDaniel President Roger Casey learned Tuesday of Foose's resignation.
"I'm very sorry to see that tensions between the superintendent and board have resulted in this," he said. "She passionately pursued the agenda that she thought would move the school district forward."
Vaillancourt had urged voters to petition state legislators to change a law that would empower the school board to fire Foose. Howard County Delegates Vanessa Atterbeary and Eric Ebersole sponsored a bill in February, but their legislation stalled in committee.
"This is what the people in Howard County wanted," Atterbeary said of Foose's decision to leave. "People ask me about the schools and all of this nonsense that's been going on.... It was just so petty."
Before arriving in Howard County, Foose served one year as deputy superintendent of Baltimore County schools and three years as an associate superintendent in Montgomery County. In the early 1990s, she worked six years as a Maryland state trooper. Then she began her career as an educator, rising from teacher to principal then administrator. She has worked two decades in Maryland schools.
In early 2012, schools boards in both Howard and Baltimore counties were racing to hire new superintendents. The neighboring jurisdictions settled on the same two finalists: Foose and S. Dallas Dance, a young middle-school administrator in Houston. Dance went to Baltimore County, Foose to Howard.
Last month, Dance announced abruptly and without explanation that he will resign in June. Now two weeks after he shared his plans, Foose has stepped down.
Reporter Fatimah Waseem contributed to this article.