As the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) begins a new school year, it does so under the direction of an Interim Superintendent. Michael Martirano, the former West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools, was hired by the county’s Board of Education in May to fill a gap created when former HCPSS Superintendent Renee Foose agreed to a brokered exit.

Despite the demands of shepherding a newly reorganized administration and school system into full operational mode — while remaining fully engaged in efforts to mend relationships and realign priorities —Martirano graciously made time to sit down with The Business Monthly and discuss his views of the responsibilities he’s been given.

“It’s a very unique situation to follow a superintendent [in an environment] where there was very great strife and consternation, and to leave with three-fourths of the school year behind is extremely unusual,” Martirano said. “I had to quickly come in and assess the environment I had to heal. I’m still doing that; I’m still reconnecting with people, building bridges to all the partnerships that were eliminated or not tended to.”

One week before the school year began, he completed the self-appointed task of meeting with every staff member in the organization.

“That’s not happened in the past,” Martirano said. “I think we’ll be able to heal the organization quickly. I’m already seeing evidence of that … based upon the response people have towards my message, their openness of discussion with me, the tenor of business of how things are being done, and those are good indicators for me.”

Sense of Urgency

Referring to the change management touchstone book “A Sense of Urgency,” by John Kotter, Martirano said he is acting from a very high level of urgency in his position, unwilling to waste a minute that could be used to build a stronger foundation to move the school system forward in the time he’s been given.

“We have a major problem regarding capacity issues,” he said, with 34 of the system’s 76 schools either over or under HCPSS Policy 6010’s targeted utilization range of 90% to 110%.

Martirano recently presented the Board of Education with a redistricting feasibility study (which is available in Spanish and English) that would place each of the county’s schools back in the targeted range.

The process is advancing and may cause concern for people whose attendance polygons are affected, he said. “The bottom line is, it has to be done, and it has to be comprehensive. It was not done in the last five years, and it’s built exponentially. If we don’t deal with it now, it will get worse.”

He also scaled back the previous superintendent’s Capital Improvements Program budget, bringing a proposed $140 million career technology high school in line with the Marriotts Ridge and Reservoir prototype high schools that cost no more than $100 million.

That option allows for replacement rather than renovation of Talbott Springs Elementary, he said, and allows funding for further renovations at Oakland Mills High School and additional work at the Applications and Research Laboratory.

“It’s … more judicious to get better results for our kids in a more timely fashion and still meet the needs of our 13th high school,” Martirano said.

Programs, Initiatives

Some programmatic changes instituted by the previous superintendent will remain, some will cease and others will be fine-tuned.

Like Foose, Martirano is a strong advocate of internships for high school students. “I want to continue to advance that process,” he said.

As a former elementary school principal and director of Howard County elementary schools, however, he admitted that he has doubts regarding the elementary school model the previous superintendent championed.

“I’m not a strong proponent of departmentalization at early ages,” Martirano said.

Directing the elimination of Gallup work conducted in that arena, the interim superintendent has eliminated departmentalization at the first grade level and given second grade teams the option to continue, provided the teams are in agreement.

Martirano indicated he would like to take a more innovative approach to expanding the implementation of world language instruction at the elementary level.

“There are also ways to do it regionally,” he said, suggesting that participating students could be bused to different immersion programs located in different regions of the county.

“That also is a way of dealing with capacity,” he said, “and you can get more in terms of program offerings.”

Looking to recognize the county’s strong agricultural background, Martirano directed a study group to explore the possibility of implementing the Curriculum for Agriculture Science Education (CASE) as an option for career technology instruction.

“If planning goes correctly and the funding sources are there, I would like to implement that in the fall of 2018,” he said.

Policy Changes

Effective this year, the school system will begin moving toward a restorative practices policy in dealing with student discipline, seeking rehabilitation in place of suspensions used as a punishment.
“We have to comply with state laws for weapons [violations], but we don’t want to continue to add to the pipeline to prison by providing suspensions that add to children not being in school and dropping out,” Martirano said. “Our demographics are shifting, we have higher levels of poverty, and we need to do things to keep kids in school.”

Other recently announced changes include accelerating the agenda to have a salad bar or salad offering in every elementary school, and a new requirement that each central office administrator provide two days of support to the county’s schools.

“I never want people to lose connection when they’re sitting here in the so-called ivory tower,” Martirano said. “We had to cut back in our budget this year on lunch and recess monitors: There’s a prime way for people to provide some additional support in our schools as we’re cutting budgets.”

Owing to the timing of his appointment, Martirano had one week to effectuate change through the budget process, and quickly repositioned resources to restore 87 para-educators to keep media centers fully staffed this year.

“I’m working very closely with Christine McComas, whose daughter Grace committed suicide a few years back as a result of bullying,” he said. “Bottom line, there will be some significant change, but I want to signal a different culture: a culture of support, that kids feel they can come to school and be safe from bullying and harassment. I’ve taken a very vocal stance in terms of anti-hate language. I will not tolerate hate within our schools.”

It’s Personal

Having spent 19 years living and working in Howard County, Martirano said he developed early relationships with a number of people who now serve on the County Council, in the county’s legislative delegation or on the school board.

“I think there’s a level of trust that’s being built because the relationship with a number of them was already there, and I’m not an unknown commodity,” he said. “Based on the feedback I’ve received from them as human beings as well as elected officials, it’s been very positive and supportive.”

Trying to resolve issues from the past “has spent an incredible amount of my time,” said Martirano. His time during the last month has focused on planning and renewing the vision for the school system for this year, in addition to rearranging and reorganizing the department.

“I can’t let things to chance when you’re overseeing an organization and business of $820 million, 56,000 young people and 8,300 employees,” Martirano said. “Our kids and our parents are counting on us, and right now it’s personal. I want this system back where it was when I left it when my kids were in the system.”