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The day after Howard County's Board of Education voted to approve a redistricting plan, Superintendent Martirano reflects on the process and outcome.

Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano understands redistricting, as both an educator and as a parent. Martirano’s children attended Howard County public schools and were redistricted while they were in school.

“When my children were going through redistricting, it was enough to be concerned [that] I got involved with the process, but I trusted the school system to know that my children would be OK, that they would be nurtured and loved,” Martirano said in an interview Friday afternoon.

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Now grown, his children “are successful, thriving adults today, and all the better because they were able to experience a rich, diverse school community,” he said.

Martirano recounted his personal experience less than 24 hours after the county’s Board of Education passed a contentious redistricting plan to move about 5,400 of the district’s 59,000 students to new schools for the 2020-21 academic year.

The board’s approved plan significantly scaled back Martirano’s original proposal of moving 7,396 students.

In August, Martirano presented his proposal with “three guiding tenets”: alleviate capacity problems, balance student poverty levels among schools and establish a road map for establishing a 13th high school, in Jessup.

“Two [of the] basic guiding tenets, of looking at capacity through the lens of equity were achieved,” he said. “Of course, I could say we should have gone further, but it’s a reconciliation of collaboration between board members [and] community input.”

Community attendees at the Howard County school board meeting at which the board voted on redistricting.

The approved plan is designed to better balance the levels of poverty across the county’s schools by moving 2,827 elementary, 568 middle and 2,007 high school students. Better distribution of low-income students among schools is associated with improved academic performance.

After presenting his recommendation, Martirano stayed relatively quiet throughout the seven public hearings and nine work sessions on redistricting. He did so intentionally, he said, to not be a distraction and allow the school board to deliberate.

“As I come out today, the day after the adoption, not even 24 hours after it, I feel strong in the board-approved plan,” he said. “Maybe not the numbers we wanted to achieve, but we can all endorse it because many hands have made that better, many voices have made that better.”

Martirano said the final plan placed more of the school system’s 74 traditional schools in the target of 90% to 110% utilization of capacity, as well as bringing other schools closer to that range. It also moved some schools’ share of low-income students closer to the district average of 22.5%.

While Martirano remained quiet during the process, the community did not.

Nearly 580 residents testified at the public hearings, several protests were held, neighborhood groups organized to attempt to influence the process, and signs and T-shirts for specific groups were displayed at packed work sessions.

In the fall, a River Hill High sophomore posted a death threat targeting Martirano on TikTok, a popular video app.

“The amplification of the [community] noise was very loud in this one,” Martirano said.

“The conversation about socioeconomics hit a chord that I knew was a concern,” he said. “I’m most upset by the reactions our students had to feel from this, [with] some of our students feeling they had to defend their schools, that negative things were being said. That breaks my heart.”

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In 2017, Martirano recommended moving 8,800 Howard students for redistricting, but in the end, fewer than 1,500 were moved at the elementary and middle school levels.

“If we pushed out any further [and moved more students], it was going to create a level of chaos as far movements, create more islands and create more challenges for transportation,” Martirano said.

He recommended that other school systems considering redistricting do it with eyes wide open, communicating effectively, being transparent and being aware of all the reactions that will come with the process.

The next steps in Howard County’s process, he said, include identifying monetary support needed in the upcoming budget season, including differentiated staffing, additional after-school programs and added classroom supports, as well as supporting schools for next September.

On Friday morning, all school principals met for a meeting where Martirano delivered the following mantra: “Remember the students that are coming to you, to love them, care for them, help for the transition [by] building a relationship [with the new students] and say goodbye to the students that are leaving us with love and compassion.”

Martirano’s goal for the entire school system is to have every child graduate, which he called “the north star” for measuring success.

“All of our schools are good no matter where your child is educated,” he said. “I can say with confidence of our 77 schools, no matter where your children are, they will be nurtured, loved and a rich education will occur in these schools. I stand by that.”

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