Worcester Superintendent Finalists Interviewed

NEWARK — The two finalists for the Worcester County Superintendent of Schools position participated in media sessions this week as part of their individual days within the local school system.

The internal candidate, Lou Taylor is the current chief operating officer for Worcester County Public Schools. He has been an educator in Worcester County for 33 years, starting as a teacher and then rising to principal of Stephen Decatur High School. After 17 years at Decatur, he moved to the Worcester County Board of Education to assume his current position.

Michael Martirano has also been an educator for more than three decades, beginning as a teacher and then rising to become superintendent of St. Mary’s County Public Schools. He is currently serving as state superintendent of schools for West Virginia.

The Board of Education is expected next month to announce the next superintendent.

Lou Taylor

Lou Taylor

Both finalists participated in a media question-and-answer session this week and the following is a partial transcription of those conversations. Taylor’s interview took place on Monday and Martirano’s was held on Tuesday.

Lou Taylor: ‘I bleed Worcester County. It’s part of my fabric, it’s who I am. In my 33-year career, I would say I don’t know of many people that have put in the number of hours, the commitment that I have to this school system’

What are some of the plans you have for the district if you were to become superintendent?

Taylor: The first thing I want to do is spend a lot of time listening to all our stakeholders. I plan to develop a strategic plan with our stakeholders. I believe if you have people involved in the plan they’re going to be more apt to implement it at a very high level. I plan to get out here and spend a lot of time talking to our parents, our students, our teachers, our leaders, our community, our business people, all the people that make up Worcester County Public Schools

What would be your first thing that you would do if you were selected?

Taylor: The first thing I’m going to have to do is certainly meet with our leadership team to give them a feel of where my course of thought is. To talk with them, share with them what our priorities are moving forward. I also need to meet with various groups in the community to introduce myself, although there’s not going to be a great learning curve for me and getting to know the people here. I’ve been here for 33 years as far as an employee but I was born and raised here, a graduate of Worcester County Public Schools. I will be able to hit the ground running so to say and if chosen coming in at a time of year with school already in session. I’m not going to upset the apple cart so to say early on. We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing and then I’m going to meet with our leadership teams to try to determine what’s important, what our priorities are and then try to focus on those priorities as we continue down the remaining school year.

Why do you like Worcester County Public Schools?

Taylor: I don’t like Worcester County Public Schools I love Worcester County Public Schools. Why? It’s because it’s my school system. I’m a part of this school system. I grew up in this school system. I believe to my core that it’s the best school system in this nation. I love it because we do a great job in educating our kids. I think our 14 schools are the fabric of our communities. It’s my hope that, I encourage everybody in Worcester County to take a very high look at our schools. I want them on board as far as supporting our schools both the mission of our schools and what we do to educate our young people.

One of the issues the school system has dealt with for a long time now is the wealth formula used by the state. That seems to be a problem. Is there anything that can be done to address that?

Taylor: Well you know the wealth formula Charlene I’ve been familiar with that ever since I was a student in the late 70s. It’s been a tough thing for us to overcome because we’re such a small school system. That wealth formula is put together with our legislators up in Annapolis. Because we are small, we have small representation up there. I say small meaning numbers. So it’s hard to get that changed. We have made several attempts. When I say we, meaning our elected officials, have made several attempts to try to get that changed. It’s been to no avail. But I also believe it’s something we have to continuously work on. We can’t just let it go. We can’t just be satisfied and say oh well. We continue to have to try to get that changed. The way I plan to do that is working with our elected officials, working with those who can make a difference in the minds of the legislators and try to find a way to get our foot in the door.

Speaking of elected officials, last week with the commissioners not making a decision on Showell, that was kind of the latest disconnect between the two entities. What would you do to improve that relationship?

Taylor: You said a key word — relationship. I’ve got to develop, I already have a relationship because I’m from here, but I’ve got to work on the relationship piece of our elected officials. I’ve got to be able to communicate with them. I’ve got to work on it in the sense that they can trust me and I can trust them. I think there’s a little bit of a disconnect right now on trust. I don’t point that at one particular person or group but I see it as there’s some distrust floating out there. I want to be as superintendent of schools and being a guy that’s been here and worked with those people try to build that sense of trust. I will do that by having regular meetings, informal regular meetings, with our elected officials. It will be nothing for you to see me having lunch with say Jimmy Bunting and Chip Bertino at say DeNovo’s in Ocean Pines. Or going down to Pocomoke and sitting at Ruby Tuesday’s with Merrill Lockfaw. Or, you know Jimmy Bunting, I shared this earlier this morning, lives less than a half a mile from me as the crow flies.

I don’t have a problem on a Saturday morning pulling up in Jimmy’s yard or going and sitting in Jimmy’s garage and talking about the issues we’ve got to address. To me, it’s not just about the issues. It’s building that relationship and trust. I’m going to work real hard to try to accomplish that. That’s going to be tough. Again, they have their own mindset. The way I start doing that is being a good listener. I can’t go in there with demands. I can’t go in there with I need this this and this. I’ve got to listen where they’re having concerns as to why we’re not able to get things done. As I listen and garner some of that trust from them, I can share what my thoughts are to make sure we’re moving our school system forward including the Showell school project.

In your opinion what are the biggest challenges of the school system going into the next couple years?

Taylor: The biggest challenge is the same challenge it’s been forever. Are we doing what’s best for kids? Our focus always has to be about kids. My mission as a superintendent will be about kids. Are we giving our kids the best possible chance to be college and career ready and two, are we giving them the best possible chance to meet all their graduation requirements? Because ultimately when you’re starting pre-k the ultimate goal is to graduate on time and to prepare for the next step of their life. Our challenges are making sure we’re doing the things both internally and externally to make them successful. Are we giving them the tools? Are we providing the skill set so they’re ready to meet the next challenges of their life? That is a continual focus we must have as a school system moving forward.

How old are you?

Taylor: 56.

What makes you the best candidate for the job?

Taylor: What makes me the best candidate for the job? No one, and I’m not just talking about the other guy that’s a finalist, no one will have the passion that I have for Worcester County Public Schools. I’m passionate about it because I’ve grown up in it as a kid, I’ve lived it as an adult, I’ve gone through every step of the process as far as becoming a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal, a central office executive member and now I’m prepared to take on the next step. I bleed Worcester County. It’s part of my fabric, it’s who I am. In my 33-year career, I would say I don’t know of many people that have put in the number of hours, the commitment that I have to this school system. In particular, my years at Stephen Decatur. You remember when I was there. So I think because it’s part of my core, it’s part of my fabric, it’s part of who I am, I don’t think anybody will be as passionate about doing what we need to do for kids moving forward.

Didn’t you apply for this job the last time?

Taylor: Correct. I was one of the four finalists last time.

What makes you better now?

Taylor: The final piece of my preparation for this is the last four-plus years I’ve spent at the central office. When I applied before, I was more of a school-based leader. I was a school based leader. I didn’t have the central office piece to my resume. Now that I have that I feel I’m a more complete candidate for the job.

You’re the chief operating officer. What’s the difference between that and your former title of assistant superintendent for administration?

Taylor: There’s really no difference. My job, the chief operating officer, is the functioning of the daily operations of the schools. Assistant  superintendent  for administration is the same thing. I handle the administrative side. Anything outside of the classroom. I have things in my responsibility now like food service, human resources, student services, maintenance, facilities, we all share in the finances. That’s where I work. It’s the same job, just different title. Some like to call it one thing some like to call it another.

You’ve taught in various different divisions. What’s been your favorite thing that you’ve been able to teach either as a teacher or in an administrative role?

Taylor: I’ve never had a job, and I’ve said this to two other groups today, I’ve never had a job in this system where I was looking for the next job. I’ve loved every avenue, or every step, of the process. When I was a teacher at Berlin Middle School in 1983, I loved it. What I loved about it, I was able to develop some very key relationships with kids. Then I became an assistant principal for two years at Berlin Middle School kind of by default. Someone in our office got ill and I was asked to go in and fill in and ultimately I was named to that position. After serving there for two years, the superintendent at the time asked me if I would be interested in moving over to the high school as an assistant principal. Again, loved each step. never was looking for the next step.

The job I held the most was my 17 years as principal at Stephen Decatur High School. In the 33 years that I’ve been in the system, I had 17 wonderful years of being principal at the high school. I was fortunate enough in 1998 to be named the Maryland secondary principal of the year. I also was the principal at Decatur when Stephen Decatur became the first Maryland Blue Ribbon School in Worcester County. Another thing I’ve been very proud of is I’m probably the only employee I know of that’s been able to go out and raise private funds, major private funds, for our school system. We raised $500,000 to build a field house at Stephen Decatur from private funds when I was there as principal. For the last four years I’ve had my hand in a little over $500,000 to develop the Worcester County Educational Foundation. As I look at it from a personal standpoint, I’ve been able to bring in a little over a million bucks to our school system.

You were a fixture at Stephen Decatur. What made you want to take the jump to the central office?

Taylor: I really didn’t. That’s a great question because I really struggled with that jump. I was a fixture there and I loved it there. I struggled with the jump in the beginning because I didn’t know if I really wanted to do that. Dr. Andes, the superintendent at the time, had come to me and said “if you ever want to do anything else we’re going to have that opening you need to consider it.”

This job that I have was, the person before me held it for 16 years. I knew if I was going to do it then, the next person in that seat could have it for 16 and then what happens when I get down the road. The other thing too, I think after 17 years of running Stephen Decatur High School I believe as a team we took it to a whole other level. Part of me said I’ve done what I can do here, it may be time to give somebody else a fresh look at the school. But I will tell you that was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made in my professional career to walk away from that job to accept this job.

What is your main priority for the school district?

Taylor: My main priority for the school district, there was a question earlier about that, is to make sure we’re doing everything we can as a system to make sure our kids are college and career ready and that our kids are meeting graduation requirements. I want to make sure that kids are prepared for the next phase of their life and are we instructionally, internally and externally, giving our kids the best opportunity to be successful. I believe ultimately every child’s goal is to graduate from high school when they start down the road at pre-k. In doing so, is our curriculum aligned from one level to the next? In other words, when they leave the elementary school, go to the middle school, to the high school, is it aligned so they can meet success each step of the way? Ultimately are they career and college ready and have they met the requirements they need to graduate from high school? That’s more of a broad look at moving the system forward

How do you plan on doing that? Are we revising curriculums? What exactly?

Taylor: I don’t know at this point. When I get into the job, I’m going to have to take a look at what we’re doing across the board. I’m going to have to do a lot of listening to people, both teachers, students, community, leadership, to see what our priorities are. We’re doing a lot of initiatives right now. I’m a believer, they’re all good initiatives, but I want to be able to take, if we’re doing 10 or 12 initiatives right now, I want to take and prioritize the top four or five and do them well and then move into the others. I think sometimes we get caught up in so much that’s demanded of us that we don’t do anything well. I want to make sure whatever we’re doing we’re doing well. If it means taking some things off the plate so we can excel in these areas, that’s my hope.

Michael Martirano: “I would set a goal to be in all schools by the end of the first week, the first seven days on the job. Visit all of our schools, build those relationships. I’m about relationships in terms of my leadership style.”

Tell me a little bit about your background.

Martirano: I am the current state superintendent of schools for the state of West Virginia, meaning I’m responsible for the education of the entire state of 277,000 young people in 55 counties. I work directly with 55 county superintendents. I’m responsible for a budget of over $2.3 billion and have been a lifelong educator. I was a local superintendent in the state of Maryland prior to this opportunity that I’ve had starting my third year. I’ve had a very wonderful successful experience as superintendent in St. Mary’s County for nine years. One of the things I’m proud of in both of those arenas I was able to develop a strong focused strategic plan focused on improving the graduation rate for all young people.

In West Virginia in two years, starting my third year, the grad rate has increased by 4 percent from the mid to low 80s to an all-time high of 87.5. We’ve set a goal of 90 percent and that would make it one of two states in America to achieve that level, which is an extremely solid indicator that defines the success of students in education. In St. Mary’s County when I started there it was in the low 80s, when I left it was in the low 90s. Again, success for kids because what I want individuals to understand the most significant data point and the most important point that every citizen in our county should know, how many young people are graduating from our high schools. When children drop out of schools there are greater challenges that student will experience because they don’t have a diploma.

Michael Martirano

Michael Martirano

I’ve had some very strong experience in the areas of leadership and superintendent positions but more importantly I define myself as a teacher first and foremost who just happens to be superintendent. I spent many years as a science and math teacher, as a principal and assistant principal at all three levels. I understand the curriculum, instruction and pedagogy and what it takes to get good results for kids. That’s what it’s about every day, doing things different and better to have more young people achieving. That’s it in a nutshell.

What are some of the plans you have for the district if you’re selected to be superintendent?

Martirano: So keep in mind I’ve been preparing for this the last couple months, doing my due diligence, looking at all the data indicators and reports that are out there for Worcester County. I’ve looked at the achievement reports. I’ve looked at the budget. I’ve looked at the priorities and goals and currently I assess the current status of Worcester County Public Schools as a very good school system with areas and opportunities for improvement. I think the system is at a crossroads in terms of where we need to be for the next five years and how we need to get there. What I think is necessary for the next superintendent, regardless of who that is, is to be able to work with community and the board to have a strong focused strategic plan that outlines specific goals of how we get there.

Working with the board, in the two interactions I’ve had with them through this process, I’ve established a vision plan for the county that will have further input from our constituents. A vision plan for Worcester County where students sail to new horizons is how I’m titling this. The “Worcester County Public Schools  Vision Plan Where Students Sail to New Horizons.” Those words are critical. It acknowledges the fact there are good things going on currently but we also have opportunity for improvement by taking this to the next level where students sail to new horizons.

That will be centered on four major tenets. One, first and foremost, great superintendents need to be solid instructional leaders. They need to understand the pedagogy, the curriculum and the instructional strategies that get improved results. The first prong of that would be improved instructional strategies, strong instructional leadership. Second, a major pillar in any quality school system and quality school has to do with safe and orderly environments. Students need to be in school every day, feel safe and free from bullying and any kind of harassment that occurs. They need to feel hope every day within our schools. The third prong of the plan would talk about the aspect of organizational effectiveness. Taking a look at our budget. In times of shrinking dollars and resources, how do we look at the resources we currently have and shifting those resources to get better results. Doing an examination of the programs that are in place. As Albert Einstein says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and getting the same results. If those things we’re doing over and over aren’t yielding good results for kids we need to stop doing them and shifting those resources to improve the quality for young people. The fourth prong in terms of this multi-pronged plan has to do with community engagement. Great superintendents and leaders understand their strength is based upon collaboration and building community support.

What would be the first thing you would do if you were selected to be superintendent?

Martirano: I think it’s extremely important, the first thing I would do is watch where leaders spend their time. Find where leaders spend their time and that tells you where their priorities are. The first thing that I will be doing if I’m the one fortunate enough to be selected for this position would be to be in schools. I would set a goal to be in all schools by the end of the first week, the first seven days on the job. Visit all of our schools, build those relationships. I’m about relationships in terms of my leadership style. Building those relationships with students, with our community, and with our parents and our principals and all of our stakeholders. Begin to address the aspects of where our community and civic groups are. Great leaders define a vision and tend to that plan every day and define the processes that lead to those products. By doing them, by building relationships with people, spending time in schools, begin to develop advisory groups with our students, our teachers and our community. Listening to the input of the main stakeholders. I want individual meetings with all our elected officials, with county commissioners, with our delegates, our senator who I’ve had the opportunity to meet today and a wonderful group of individuals. Get to know our board members and understand what their visions are and how we can work jointly and collaboratively to do it.

I’m not a behind the desk kind of guy. As you can figure out I’m an extroverted, charismatic, animated leader and I need to be present and building relationships with the students and community and be present in the lives of the educators ion this system to be working through the improvement process.

One of the issues the school system struggles with is the wealth formula in the state. Worcester is considered one of the wealthiest counties in spite of the high percentage of students in poverty. What could be done to address that?

Martirano: I think that’s a conversation piece. I’m well aware of where you fall, in fact my per-pupil expenditure was on the other end of that. If you look at the overall span of all the counties in Maryland, I was at the other end of it [in St. Mary’s]. I was always very acutely aware of where Worcester County fell on that with the local level of contributions from the local level. But again, conversations have to occur about that. How those decisions are being made. As I stated today, we can’t expect that county commissioners, our funding sources, to provide us with a blank check without a level of accountability. So first and foremost one of the major jobs of the superintendent is to build capacity by educating and working with county officials, board of education members, state leaders about what the priorities are. As you see I’m already articulating a vision plan for the county, building support for that, and again adding to that as more collaborative groups come together. If our focus is to improve the graduation rate and that’s a problem, I need to socialize that with the county commissioners, the local delegation, the board of education, to get more resources to address our topics. Because I come from the philosophy that equal distribution of funds is not equity. We have to define our needs based upon our data.

I have the responsibility of doing that with my staff to be able to define what those priorities are and acknowledge there’s not a never-ending pot of money available. I use the continuous improvement model, too. I would want to examine the over $100 million that goes to public education in Worcester County to see are there opportunities to be more effective and efficient with the allocation of those resources. Are all those resources directed in the right way before we begin to ask for more dollars in that sense? We’re very proud of the fact that we have relatively good class sizes, we have negotiated agreement that has to be honored with our employees and we have to be true to those promises and commitments to ensure the quality indicators of improving the quality education for young people. I’m aware of the funding formula, I’ve worked with it in the state of Maryland for a number of years.

Why did you decide to apply to this job and how familiar are you with Worcester County as a whole?

Martirano: I’m a lifelong Maryland resident. I’m looking for, in life transition, to return to the state of Maryland to be one, closer to my children, who are young adults. I just got word that my daughter is expecting my first grandchild. My son is getting married next year and when you get to know me a little better my values are very clear. My wife and I did not have children so I could be an absentee father. I want to be be highly engaged in the lives of my children and the distance is taking a toll on me being away from them. Additionally my wife passed away this year and I’m the patriarch of our family and I need to be closer in to my family support. Through that process I began looking at other jobs available. Places that I wanted to work. It’s interesting, I’ve shared this with the board and a number of stakeholder groups, I made a list of school districts that I thought one day I’d like to work in and Worcester County is always on that list. I’ve always been impressed with the leadership in Worcester County. It’s an opportunity for me to make improvement to students in a state which I love, in a county that has very fond memories to me. Even as a child the first time I saw the ocean was in Ocean City. I have great memories here.

Another issue in recent years is in Worcester County there seems to be a disconnect between the county commissioners and the school system. What would you do to improve the relationship between those entities?

Martirano: I think you used the word that’s critical — relationships. As a superintendent I never close the door. If I close the door on someone or anybody, that closes the door in terms of building capacity to work on behalf of kids. Adults have to find a way to work through their differences. The work we do, I can’t have any enemies in education because ultimately it’s going to have a detrimental effect in terms of what we’re trying to advance for kids.

What I’ve found consistently about elected officials, and I’m in the same position, we don’t like surprises. Work that you can do outside of the budget process, and I keep using the word socialize and educate, is critical to the advancement of good decision making. When you have a superintendent and a board of education and a county commission group working together wonderful things start happening for children. I can point to examples all across the state of Maryland where that’s happened to a very robust level where there was an infusion of dollars because it was built upon trust and commitment and good results were occurring. I can also point to bad examples where superintendents would go to the county commission and expect a blank check to be given with no level of accountability. There has to be a level of accountability because the dollars we’re talking about, it’s $100 million plus, that goes to the educational system in Worcester County. Those dollars come from our hard-working tax payers. They have to be judiciously allocated and communicated in a way that we are trusted as stewards of those dollars for our kids

How do you feel about the post-Labor Day start?

Martirano: I have been a strong advocate for 180 days of school. I’ve had to promote that as state law in the state of West Virginia the last two years of my tenure. I’m about quality time on task and making sure that young people have a meaningful experience with meaningful time on task of instruction. I recognize that Worcester County has started after Labor Day and that’s a decision that has been made but I what want to look at is how do we now manage the calendar so that there’s no breaks of instructional time, that children are prepared for assessments, that the quality time on task is monitored. How do we bridge the gap when children aren’t in school? These long breaks in summer are a concern for me, but I think there’s an opportunity there for Worcester County in how do we go back and talk to our county commission about enhancing summer enrichment programs, providing opportunities, because the most significant thing in the research about young people during the summer is the summer regression, the summer slide. Any of you, if we take you off your skill for three months at a given time, that first day back on the job you’re going to be rusty. What do we do in terms of the learning process when young people, if you look mathematically, are only in school 9 percent of their time, and 90 percent they’re out of school. Yet schools are expected to do 100 percent of the work in 10 percent of the time. How do we bridge that gap with after school programming, before school programming, summer enrichment programs, and honor and respect our family time and respect the economic drivers of Ocean City and working with our leaders? It can be done and worked in a positive way when individuals are working together but we also have to honor in that discussion conversations about instruction for young people and them being safe and their well-being.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.