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Likely W.Va. schools chief leaves budget issues behind in Md.

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By Mackenzie Mays 
The Charleston Gazette

Michael Martirano, who is expected to be elected as the new West Virginia schools superintendent on Tuesday, is leaving his district in Maryland at a controversial time, following an investigation into the school system’s $6 million budget deficit.

In April, the St. Mary’s County Commission, located in Southern Maryland, released a statement responding to the school district’s deficit, saying that an investigation was necessary because Martirano could not identify the source of the shortfalls and alleging “possible malfeasance and certainly mismanagement.”

St. Mary’s school budget is less than $195 million. Martirano would oversee a budget of $2.2 billion if he is elected as the state superintendent of schools in West Virginia.

Martirano had pointed to unexpected health-care expenses, a record-breaking winter and special-education costs as the main reasons for the lack of funding, according to Southern Maryland Newspapers Online.

Martirano did not return calls by press time Saturday.

Some of the budget issues have been cleared up, and St. Mary’s is expected to break even, through “massive cutting and juggling” that depleted more than 35 school jobs and already-promised raises, according to Anna Laughlin, president of the county’s branch of the National Education Association.

Laughlin said that while she doesn’t blame Martirano personally for the district’s financial problems and she’s never suspected wrongdoing, “there has to be a desk at which the buck stops.”

“Dr. Martirano has stated publicly that errors were made and that he has taken responsibility; however, of course, he’s not the one that keeps the books. We’ve had budget issues for quite some time,” Laughlin said. “I don’t hold Dr. Martirano responsible for what happened, and part of what happened I think was because he was trying to do what he could for employees and it kind of backfired.”

“He has a tendency to have big ideas before the money’s there, and so, every time a budget comes out, here’s all these wonderful things we want to add for kids, but there’s no money for us,” she said.

Laughlin acknowledged some of the public’s concerns about Martirano and the timing of his transfer to West Virginia, but she said he has the potential to be a great state leader.

“It doesn’t look good, but Dr. Martirano didn’t go looking for this job, the job came looking for him,” she said. “There’s still a lot of speculation out there. People suspect this or that happened, he did this, he did that. But nobody committed a crime here — we’re sure of that. You guys are getting a very vibrant, dedicated man who, if there’s any money in West Virginia, is going to do wonderful things for your school system. Not everybody agrees with me, but I’m sorry to see him go. He has enormous energy. I don’t know when the man sleeps. His mind is always working and always coming up with new ideas and things he wants to put in place to help kids at risk.

“He’s become very popular and unpopular at the same time. It depends who you are,” Laughlin said. “Among the teachers, we have a great deal of respect for him. He has brought this school system from an unknown to a national entity. We are one of the top-rated school systems in the country now, due to his leadership.”

Laughlin also said part of the budget problem was totally out of Martirano’s hands because the state of Maryland has collective-bargaining rights, and school boards have to depend on their county government for funding.

The percent of the budget that the public schools in St. Mary’s receives has continued to decrease for several years, she said.

“So, each year, Dr. Martirano has been faced with having to do more and more with less and less . . . and yet, we’re one of the fastest-growing counties in Maryland and one of the wealthiest — yet, we cannot get proper funding,” she said. “Every year, he’s been trying to fund a world-class school system on third-class dollars. Eventually, that thin line was bound to break, and it did.”

St. Mary’s County Commissioner Jack Russell said the school board has made progress in recovering the funds internally to edge the deficit down and added that, while some people are up in arms, he is still very much supportive of Martirano.

“You’re going to get all sorts of viewpoints — some that want to vilify. We’re going to work this out, one way or another. I’m not into the theories or conspiracies or whatever the deal is,” Russell said. “Mike Martirano did a fine job the nine years he was here. He’s one of the leading people in education in our state.”

West Virginia Board of Education President Gayle Manchin said she was not aware of the recent controversy in St. Mary’s public schools and “can’t speak intelligently” about the situation, but said things like this happen all the time.

“Things can happen. Certainly, we’ve had counties here in West Virginia that struggle financially and it’s not anyone’s wrongdoing; it’s a combination of factors,” Manchin said. “I just think anytime you get into financial issues with a county — with education — there are so many factors. I think that you can probably find in any profession that no one’s perfect. There are always going to be issues out there — it’s about how people respond to them. And always, of course, there are going to be naysayers.”

The West Virginia board is expected to vote Tuesday at the state Capitol on hiring Martirano.