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Wednesday •  August 30, 2023

Zum“ing Off a Cliff: Howard County School Bus Debacle Exposes Deep HCPSS Leadership Issues

By Steven Keller

On January 26, 2023, the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) Board of Education was faced with a critical decision on whether or not to approve a contract that would upend the current HCPSS transportation model, double-book many existing school bus routes that won’t naturally expire until 2027, and commit $81 million of Howard County taxpayer dollars to hire Zum Services, Inc. — a California-based transportation company that had only started servicing school systems in 2019 which touted a self-described “revolutionary connected platform” and a promised future fleet of “carbon-neutral” all-electric buses .


There were many serious concerns raised during this discussion, particularly about double-booking of existing bus routes that could result in contract breaches and/or severe waste of millions of precious Howard County taxpayer dollars.

Some Board members even indicated the desire to delay this vote and conduct more research before making such a significant commitment.  When asked about this possibility, HCPSS Superintendent Michael J. Martirano’s Transportation Department outright rejected this possibility:


“Can the approval of this contract be delayed?” – Jolene Mosley, HCPSS Board of Education Member


“No, it cannot be delayed.” – Robert Bruce, HCPSS Director of Procurement


No, this cannot be delayed for 2 reasons.  One it’s about system and moving forward and being able to implement it, but it’s also a requirement in order for one of the vendors listed here in order to purchase their buses and get ’em in in time for the start of the school year, we need to make a decision this evening. – Brian Nevin, HCPSS Director of Transportation


Basically, Martirano’s staff told the Board “Give Zum the money tonight or expect no school buses for School Year 2023-2024″.

In the end, the Board decided to approve the contract with Zum Services, Inc. in a 4-1-1 vote.

Fast forward to late August 2023…despite getting their contract commitment at the time insisted upon over 7 months prior, Zum Services has been caught completely flat-footed and short-staffed in Howard County, flying in temporary drivers from across the country (as far as the West Coast), canceling bus routes until at least the end of this first school week, and leaving thousands of families with bus ride horror stories including multiple hours late pickups & dropoffs for hundreds of bus routes, countless incidents of “no-show” and “drive-by-with-no-pickup” routes, wrongful and abrupt dropoffs of elementary school students in unsafe and unfamiliar areas, wrong maps and broken GPS systems, and even mass car sickness and bloody noses as “a bus driver got lost and drove erratically in circles until the kids were literally sick”. 


In a sad twist of irony for a school system whose Strategic Call To Action is “Learning and Leading with Equity”, those who suffered the worst from this situation have been the many special needs students who depend so strongly on routine and safe, timely transportation and the thousands of students from families with fewer resources who were unable to be driven to school on-time (or at all) or picked up at the end of the school day.


At approximately 11:00 PM on August 28, 2023 — the night before the second day of school — HCPSS families were notified that bus routes for thousands of students would be canceled for at least the full first week of school:

All of this comes just one week after Superintendent Martirano reassured the HCPSS community that he and his transportation team were “fully prepared for the first day”:


“We believe that we’re fully prepared for the first day….that we will have all of our bus routes covered and that students will receive the transportation that they need and deserve in Howard County.” – HCPSS Superintendent Michael J. Martirano

The details of HCPSS’s contract with Zum Services Inc. were investigated via a Maryland Public Information Act request.  While the contract was released by HCPSS in response to this request, a concerning amount of critical details from the contract were concealed in the heavily-redacted file HCPSS published online.

For reference and comparison, here is an example of a full (non-redacted) contract that the San Francisco Unified School District established with Zum Services, Inc. in 2020.

(Note: you may need to copy the above BoardDocs link directly into your browser for it to work properly, if you receive an error by clicking on it.)


According to the official Zum Services blog, Zum was delivered new paper bus routes from HCPSS on Saturday August 26, 2023 and Sunday August 27, 2023 — less than 24 hours before the start of school on August 28!  Why was this critical information delivered so late to the bus companies?

This is not how a school system should operate….


…but just who or what is to blame for this dysfunction?


While fingers can be pointed in many directions — most directly at Zum Services, Inc. , Superintendent Martirano, Brian Nevin, HCPSS Director of Transportation, and the Board of Education members who approved Zum’s contract, one thing is clear:


Voting in new Board of Education members won’t solve this issue….not when the Board is forced to make such monumental decisions so quickly and so poorly informed.  There is a deeper problem plaguing HCPSS that can’t be solved simply by the next election.


If you want to effectuate real change in HCPSS and prevent situations like the current transportation debacle from ever happening again, then better leadership must be demanded from the top of HCPSS Central Office, particularly from Superintendent Martirano.  After all, this is *his* Transportation Department.

For years, Superintendent Martirano has used the Board of Education as a shield to avoid real accountability for situations and crises that can primarily be attributed to his leadership, going so far as to even use some of crises and leadership failures to apply for personal awards, such as the “Leaders to Learn From” award for his 2019 redistricting plan that shook outraged and disrupted the lives of thousands of HCPSS families.


It was Superintendent Martirano’s Transportation Department that convinced the Board that school start time changes could be implemented smoothly, with minimal impact to students and families.


It was Superintendent Martirano’s Transportation Department that then came back to the Board months later and insisted that expanding walker zones and removing bus service for 3500+ HCPSS students was not only necessary to implement school start time changes, but would be a brilliant means of “maximizing efficiency”.


(Note: you may need to copy the above BoardDocs link directly into your browser for it to work properly, if you receive an error by clicking on it.)

It was Superintendent Martirano’s Transportation Department that cooly convinced the Board that it was in the best interest of HCPSS students, families and Howard County taxpayers to sign Zum Services, Inc. — a less than 10 year old California-based company that has only recently begun providing bus services to a handful of West Coast school districts — for an $81 million three-year contract to service half of HCPSS bus routes despite HCPSS already being locked in to existing contracts with local bus companies for the majority of their 400+ routes through 2027.


None of this has occurred without Superintendent Martirano’s blessing.  All major HCPSS initiatives go through him and oftentimes either start with or end up being heavily influenced by him.


Superintendent Martirano and his team don’t just take orders from the Board of Education and blindly execute them.  In reality, the Board relies on the Superintendent and his Central Office staff to serve as trusted expert advisors who provide accurate and timely information, analysis, and recommendations on operational issues such as the current issue of transportation.


However, far too often since Martirano became HCPSS Superintendent in 2017, he and certain executive members of his Central Office staff have:

(1) selectively informed the Board with confidently-presented yet half-baked plans filled with half-truths and strategic omissions to convince them to vote for policies the way he and his political allies want them to


(2) consistently failed to provide timely information to the Board such that they have the time to actually read, digest, and critically analyze what has been presented to them and make well-informed decisions.


Accounts from actual past and current Board members describe frequent instances where Central Office staff, under Martirano’s supervision, have dumped reams of information on the Board with less than 24 hours to read and respond to.  The Board has then been expected to make motions and vote on far-reaching, consequential decisions based on this blizzard of haphazard and oftentimes error-filled information and legal opinions that have largely been produced by consultants hand-picked by Martirano’s inner circle.


A perfect example of this is the disastrous 2019 school redistricting (the brainchild of Superintendent Martirano), when the hired consultants and school planning team members constantly failed to accurately answer simple, yet critical questions that were directed to them by Board members throughout the process.


The decision to approve the $81 million contract with Zum Services, Inc. is the latest example of this rushed, poorly-informed, decision making, which has been a recurring problem during Martirano’s tenure as Superintendent.


Over the past 5 years, Board of Education members and Central Office staff have come and gone — including former Director of Transportation David Ramsay and former HCPSS General Counsel Mark Blom, yet HCPSS has lurched from crisis to crisis and controversy to controversy at an ever-increasing rate with one constant: the Superintendent.


While the public has typically focused their ire at the Board of Education during each of these situations with the common cry to “vote the rascals out!”, Superintendent Martirano has slyly hidden behind Board members as they serve as the public’s punching bag and has masterfully ensured that he never face any serious accountability for his growing list of leadership failures


HCPSS parents and concerned community members have wasted thousands — potentially tens of thousands — of cumulative hours fighting back against the results of these failures of leadership. Countless hours spent testifying, emailing, researching, protesting etc. only to typically be ignored in the end by the Superintendent and the majority of the Board.


This does not need to be the accepted way of life in Howard County.


When will enough be enough?

Concluding Thoughts

Don’t wait for a new election cycle to roll around to attempt to make positive changes to the Howard County Public School System.


Focus your efforts immediately and as a cohesive public force of HCPSS stakeholders to demand better leadership from Superintendent Martirano and better Central Office oversight by the Board of Education:

  • Share your concerns directly with them as often and in as many ways as it takes to be truly heard and to motivate them to publicly take action.


  • Encourage the Board to stand up to being pressured by Superintendent Martirano’s team to make critical decisions without adequate time to run their own analyses and have all of their questions answered and concerns assuaged.  It’s OK to say “No, we will not be pressured to vote tonight.  We need more time to make this decision.”  As noted in this article, “Seven Techniques to Strengthen Board Decisions”,

Boards often find themselves making “rushed” decisions, where they must make a decision at the same meeting in which the issue has first been presented to the full board. While emergencies and opportunities may make this choice occasionally necessary, it should be the rare exception and not the rule for routine decision making.


  • Insist that the Board of Education hire their own General Counsel and regularly seek their own legal advice independent from (and to fact check) “HCPSS General Counsel” (currently J. Stephen Cowles), who serves the Superintendent and his team and is not required to directly report to the Board.


  • Insist that Superintendent Martirano and his staff be honest, timely brokers and genuine, open partners with the Board…not just when it is convenient, but always.


  • Insist that Superintendent Martirano better communicate with parents and taxpayers about their concerns. Not just political placating, but real, genuine, open communication *prior* to crises — not just as post-incident damage control.


  • If Superintendent Martirano is unable to improve his leadership to a level of quality and consistency that HCPSS stakeholders deserve, then insist that the Board find a suitable replacement as soon as his next 4-year contract expires. Howard County taxpayers deserve a stellar, unimpeachable HCPSS Superintendent for the $300K+ salary that their tax dollars provide for that position.


The contact information for Superintendent Martirano and the current Board of Education members is shown below.  Every HCPSS family — especially those who have been affected by this current crisis and other crises over the past 5 years — should *regularly* contact the Superintendent and their Board members to insist on all of the above until they clearly,  completely, and consistently satisfy these points of leadership reform:


HCPSS Superintendent Michael J. Martirano: ; (410)-313-6677

HCPSS Board of Education Members

Full Board of Education:

Antonia Watts (Chair): ; (443)-774-8626

Yun Lu (Vice Chair): ; (443)-774-8174

Linfeng Chen: ; (443)-774-8324

Jennifer Swickard Mallo: ; (443)-355-7043

Jacquelin “Jacky” McCoy: ; (443)-518-9611

Jolene Mosley: ; (443)-430-5385

Robyn C. Scates: ; (443)-774-9912

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