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New superintendent in Howard County pledges transparency on school information requests

Michael Martirano, Howard County acting schools superintedent.
Michael Martirano, Howard County acting schools superintedent. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

The acting superintendent for Howard County schools is vowing to reform how the system handles requests for public information — a source of complaints during the previous administration that last year prompted a state ombudsman's audit.

Michael J. Martirano, who was named acting superintendent in May after the sudden departure of superintendent Renee Foose, said this week the system will create a website that documents requests made to administrators through the Maryland Public Information Act.

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Martirano said the site will include all requests made to the system — with the names of those making the requests and other personal information redacted — as well as the information resulting from the request.

He said he hopes posting requests publicly will streamline information for individuals and groups that often make the same requests as others, and will establish that the system is working transparently.

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Martirano is slated to go from "acting" to "interim" superintendent at the end of this month, placing him in the position for at least the next year.

Maryland's Public Information Act outlines the public's right to access government records deemed "disclosable," and to obtain copies of those records. In some cases agencies can charge a fee for gathering and copying records, but the act requires compliance "without unnecessary cost and delay."

Last year, state legislators pressed for an audit of Howard County schools' handling of information requests after some parents and groups complained they were not being answered in a timely way, or were being denied.

In December, a report from the Maryland public access ombudsman, part of the Maryland attorney general's office, found most of the more than 200 requests reviewed between 2012 and 2015 were properly handled.

However, the report found that in some cases the system did not follow Maryland's public information law. It said the system in some instances unlawfully denied or appeared to deliberately thwart requests for information, sometimes arguing records simply did not exist.

Martirano did not cite the ombudsman review, but said issues with information requests can undermine public confidence.

"When you stop responding to [PIA requests], the public mind says, 'What are you trying to hide?'" he said.

He said posting all requests and findings on the website will "take the steam out of this issue, because you've already been transparent."

Brian Bassett, a communications specialist for the school system, said officials anticipate a summer release of the website. He said in an email the process will be part of the current system website, HCPSS.org.

"It will also be searchable and all requests that do not contain protected personal information will remain public for all to view," he wrote.

State Ombudsman Lisa Kershner, who led last year's review of the Howard County system, noted that schools are often the subject of information requests because education issues are of "obvious interest to the community in general."

She said she can't speak specifically to Martirano's proposal without details, but said "it seems consistent with public policy and with the purpose of the public information act."

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She also said it indicates the superintendent and school board are giving "serious effort and serious consideration to improvement ... which should be applauded."

Kershner said in addition to reviewing offices and agencies, her office is available to help agencies "problem solve" as they revamp response to information requests.

"I would hope [the school system] can view us as a resource going forward," she said.

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