A version of this column appears in the September issue of The Business Monthly, serving Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
By Len Lazarick
There’s a reason the local school superintendent is the highest paid local official in Maryland’s counties.
It’s the toughest job in the county, heading the institutions where taxpayers spend the most money and that touch the most lives.
The fierce competition for the top talent also drives up the salaries, and the average superintendent of large urban and suburban school system lasts only about four years in the job.
Howard County’s Michael Martirano has only been hired as interim superintendent for this school year. He’s clearly acting like he plans to stay much longer, and he hopes as much.
Since he was hired as acting superintendent in May, followed by his one year appointment, Martirano has been on a whirlwind of activity.
Externally, he’s made himself highly visible in the community.
“I’m still building bridges,” he said in an interview with two Business Monthly writers last month. “I think we’ll be able to heal the organization quickly. I’m operating from a very high level of urgency.”
The previous superintendent, Renee Foose, had achieved much of what the school board which hired her had wanted when it came to student achievement. But her closed management style had engendered a widespread level of hostility from the community and within the school system itself. That dissatisfaction led to the defeat of three incumbent school members, replaced by members bent on removing Foose.
After prolonged acrimony — Foose sued the board she worked for — and a huge $1.6 million buyout of her contract, the new board majority got their way and Foose was gone. Ding, dong, the wicked witch is dead. But then what?
They got very lucky that Martirano was waiting in the wings. He had vastly more and more varied experience than Foose had brought to the system. He already knew the community, having lived there 19 years, and he knew the public schools, having served as supervisor of elementary schools. Before that he had been a teacher and a principal of Laurel High School.
Following his Howard County service, he became superintendent in St. Mary’s County and then for the state of West Virginia.
“My return to Howard County is like a dream come true,” Martirano said after he got the job. “I always wanted to be the superintendent of Howard County, but the timing just never worked itself out.”
As one small sign of Martirano’s community outreach, he showed up at a happy hour for Howard County bloggers, with a strong representation of candidates and activists. The new super has already set up regular meetings with Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and other elected officials.
Under Martirano, we are not likely to see a repeat of school budgets like this year’s, where the executive needed to cut $54 million the county did not have.
“There is not an endless pot of money available each year,” said Martirano. “I’ve always been able to navigate the difference between wants and needs.”
One of the needs is what he calls “a major problem with capacity.” Thirty-three of the 76 schools are either over capacity or underutilized.
Martirano knows what not having enough space looks like. Outside the window of his office in the Route 108 headquarters is a modular building holding central office staff.
He’s already rearranged the priorities for the system’s capital program. There will not be a $140 million high school for career and technical education. He’s trimmed the cost to $90 million to $100 million, freeing up the money for other needs.
Also a the top of his needs list is dealing with a $20 million deficit in the school system’s health care spending accounting.
He’s also adjusted the operating budget to restore the para-educators to the media centers in every school, a lack that had “disappointed and chagrined” him.
“I’m feeling pretty good right now,” he said two weeks before the start of school. “I never lose sight at what it means to be a teacher.”