'Moving the needle' in county public schools: Superintendent's first academic year marked by challenges, rebuilding

Jess Nocera
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

When Michael Martirano was asked to lead Howard County public schools as interim superintendent in May 2017, he did not return to the same Howard County district he left a dozen years ago.

“I inherited a system in crisis, a school system that was in crisis, it had every imaginable concern in it,” Martirano said in an interview at the end of this school year, his first full academic year in charge of the state’s sixth largest school district.

Martirano, 59, whose resume includes his tenure as state schools superintendent in West Virginia and superintendent of St. Mary’s County schools in Southern Maryland, was the director of school administration in Howard County from August 2002 to June 2005.

When he took the top leadership job, Martirano said he had a lot of healing to do in the school system and community.

“It was absolutely unimaginable to know system that I knew and worked in, to [see] the level of where it was. From the inside point of view it was worst than what I expected it to be,” Martirano said. He said that the school system was “reeling emotionally” and that there was a great level of distrust.

Renee Foose, the former county schools superintendent whose relationships with the school board and some parents had soured, stepped down last May after the Board of Education agreed to pay nearly $1.65 million in salary and benefits for the final three years of her four-year contract.

Foose had been feuding for months with the school board over her leadership, which also drew fire from political and community leaders. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Since his return, Martirano has earned praise on several fronts, including a teacher’s union annual job satisfaction survey where more than 92 percent of educators said they have confidence in his leadership, and from school board chairwoman Cynthia Valliancourt, who said Maritrano leads with thoughtfulness.

In a 57,000-student district that is growing by almost 1,000 students a year, Martirano has had to grapple with issues ranging from classroom crowding, redrawing neighborhood school boundary lines, an ugly hate-bias crime at Glenelg High School and an increased emphasis on school security in the aftermath of fatal shootings at schools in Maryland and Florida.

Facing steady enrollment growth and shifting student needs, the superintendent also has to find ways to sustain a high level of academic achievement, as measured by a battery of mandatory tests, in a district where parents demand quality education and accountability.

He also has taken on a $50 million deficit in the system’s health insurance budget, winning an $11 million payment in a tight budget year to begin whittling away at the red ink, avoiding a major change in costs for health benefits for employees this year.

The superintendent, who regularly finds time to visit schools, said he remains resolute to combat mental health concerns through hiring additional professional staff, keeping school safety in the forefront of his mind and others but not making the schools feel like “police states” and helping students work through behavioral incidents with positive communication.

A teacher at heart

Martirano prides himself on being a teacher first and always.

“All I ever wanted to do was be a teacher, I wanted to make an impact,” he said. “It was discouraged, it was actually discouraged [in college], ‘you’re the only guy who wants to be a teacher.’ Everyone was pre this and pre that and everyone wanted to be an engineer.”

Martirano’s emphasis on mental health was highlighted during the budget session for the fiscal year that began July 1. The school system will hire three social workers with a plan to bring onboard an additional three social workers a year for the next four years.

He said by having more staff members focused on mental health, they will identify signs of problems earlier. He said he wants to foster a compassionate and caring environment where individuals who are suffering in silence will be able to talk about what they’re going through without having a stigma associated with it.

“I’m hell-bent on this, it’s personal for me,” said Martirano, whose wife, Silvanna, suffered from depression and anxiety, took her life in May 2016.

In all his years as an educator, Martirano has not seen the volume of mental health instances or the levels of bullying and trauma that he sees now.

“I want to be known for one, [as the superintendent] who turned the school system around and created an empathetic environment of care and support and compassion to address mental health issues in our schools,” he said.

Another priority is addressing school safety.

“You can never let your guard down first of all, it’s almost like putting a pebble in your shoe so it’s constant agitation,” he said.

One of the first things Martirano did was analyze the various leadership structures in the school system.

“I was greatly disturbed … one of the my gaps in that analysis was the lack of focus on safety and security,” he said. “There was not a single position that reported directly to the superintendent about safety and security.”

Martirano created a new position focused on security, appointing Thomas McNeal as director of security, emergency preparedness and response.

Martirano is focused on maintaining a balance of law enforcement in the county schools so that the schools aren’t viewed as “a police state.”

Howard County police school resource officers are assigned to all 12 county high schools and Homewood, a school for students needing nontraditional classes and support. Six middle schools share three officers who rotate between the schools.

“That causes me challenges because they are shifting between schools,” Martirano said.

“Never dreamed I would be living in an era with great concern over school shootings,” he said. “I went to school to become a teacher...not once was I trained to be a crisis manager.”

When Martirano was principal of Laurel High School, during a six-week period he dealt with the aftermath of 9/11, a tornado that ripped off a wing of the school and a student stabbing.

“I’ve carried those experiences forward,” he said. “It defines my outlook now as a superintendent, to keep safety in the forefront of all my thoughts,” he said.

While in West Virginia, Martirano said his three major accomplishments were positively impacting early childhood efforts, career technology education and improving high school graduation rates, in a state where things are “financially strapped.” During his time as state superintendent, he traveled to all 55 counties.

While he did not want to leave West Virginia, he did because he knew he needed to “get home to my kids” after the tragic event of losing his wife.

He also lost his own mother, who died of cancer when Martirano was 10. His father did not cope well and Martirano and his sister were placed into foster care.

“All of those experiences have made me who the man I am today,” he said.

After Martirano moved back to Maryland he was hearing “all the noise, the loud noise that was occurring in Howard County … [and] I got a call and the timing was right.”

Maryland has always been the backbone of Martirano. He grew up in Frostburg, attended the University of Maryland and lived in Howard County for 20 years, four of which he worked for the school system. His children, Maria, Vincent and Gina, grew up attending the county public schools.

Martirano received undergraduate and graduate degrees from University of Maryland and received a doctorate from Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

‘Grace and aplomb’

Vaillancourt, whose term on the school board is drawing to an end, said that Maritirano leads with “tremendous confidence” and professionalism.

“He’s doing a great job, he walked into an extremely dysfunctional and messed up situation with tremendous grace and aplomb,” Vaillancourt said. “He’s got the expertise that we need and the attitude that we need.”

More than 92 percent of educators expressed confidence in the leadership exhibited by Martirano, according to the results of the Howard County Education Association survey, released in March.

During Foose’s first year at superintendent, her confidence rating was 74 percent. In the year before she left, educators gave her a 10.8 percent confidence rating.

“I feel that we have been successful in moving the needle,” Martirano said.

Martirano said he was “very proud” of his rating from teachers and that the survey showcases how the schools have improved.

Colleen Morris, president of the teacher’s union, said that one of the first things that needed to be addressed was morale.

Martirano did a “good job” of addressing morale by telling his story which “gave everyone an insight into who he was and where he was from,” Morris said.

“One of the things he has continued is putting support staff back in the classrooms,” Morris said. “You can see that it is one of his priorities.”

The school system has added more paraeducators, service providers and lunch and recess monitors, Morris said. Paraeducators, or teacher aides, offer support and assist in providing instructional and non-instructional services to students and their families, according to the National Education Association.

Providing lunch and recess monitors allows teachers to have more time to prepare lesson plans and the students are benefiting from it, Martirano said.

Going forward, Morris said that union will continue to work very collaboratively with Martirano, especially with restorative justice programs. Under Martirano’s leadership, the school system had implemented restorative justice practices for disciplining students and improving behavior in positive ways.

Vaillancourt said that Martirano has made the “school system a happily productive place to work at again.”

“People do their best work when they are supported and respected and I believe our staff and our families feel that now more and more every day,” Vaillancourt said.

Vaillancourt said she and Martirano don’t see eye-to-eye on everything.

“He isn’t just a ‘yes man’ and saying what people want to hear,” Vaillancourt said. “He is doing the hard work.”

Brent Loveless, the PTA Council president, did not return requests for comment.

Since Martirano assumed office in May 2017 he said it “has been nonstop work,” to put all the noise from the past behind the school system.

“I set out to heal the organization and shift the culture of the organization,” Martirano said.

jnocera@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jessmnocera

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