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Thursday •  September 9, 2021 (Original Planned Publication Date)
Thursday •  September 14, 2023 (Actual Publication Date)

Hot Mess, Zūm Express: A Retrospective Look at Some Root Causes of an Avoidable Howard County School System Calamity

(From the HoCo Watchdogs Cutting Room Floor, Originally Authored in Sept. 2021)

By Steven Keller

Author’s Note The post below was originally authored two years ago, in September 2021, when the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) last found itself in the midst of a major school bus-related controversy, mainly revolving around a bus driver shortage that seems small compared to the current crisis that HCPSS now faces.  The post was left unpublished at the time, but its content, retrospections, and recommendations are even more important now than when it was originally written.


The current bus transportation crisis that HCPSS is facing at the start of the 2023-2024 school year did not just come from a failure to properly execute changes to school start times or from a disastrous new contract with Zum Services, Inc. The spectacular failure currently on display is the result of years of budget and transportation policy mismanagement at the school level and decades of residential development mismanagement at the county government level. 


For more context of the current crisis and the deep HCPSS leadership issues driving it, check out the last HoCo Watchdogs post, “Zum”ing Off a Cliff: Howard County School Bus Debacle Exposes Deep HCPSS Leadership Issues.


With the above introduction in mind, here is the main HoCo Watchdogs post, recovered from the “cutting room floor”, originally authored in September 2021:


With the first fully in-person school year since Spring 2020, HCPSS is currently facing severe school bus transportation issues that have left many students stranded at their bus stops, reliant upon excessively long bus rides, and/or arriving significantly late to school or home.  Many other surrounding counties are facing similar problems due to a nationwide school bus driver shortage that has left public school system transportation departments significantly understaffed and hastily needing to train many newly recruited drivers.  While this nationwide shortage certainly bears the brunt of the responsibility for HCPSS’s immediate transportation problems, there is a high likelihood that its impact would have been much less severe and more easily mitigated if HCPSS and the Howard County government had heeded certain warnings and implemented more prudent residential development and school transportation policies in recent years.


The already-challenging situation presented to HCPSS by the nationwide school bus driver shortage is undoubtedly compounded by the increased bus route complexities that have resulted from the most recent comprehensive school redistricting plan that relocated over 5400 students.  That plan, approved by the Board of Education in November 2019, controversially broadened the scope of redistricting beyond its historical focus on reduction of school overcrowding to a socioeconomic-based approach that attempted to re-balance schools based on their percentages of Free and Reduced Meal (FARM) student populations

This new prioritized social metric for redistricting, while well-intentioned, resulted in thousands more students being redistricted than otherwise would have been necessary to alleviate school overcrowding, particularly at the elementary level.


As a result of this plan, 544 students who had been walkers to their neighborhood schools were turned into bus riders (the equivalent of 9-10 fully utilized new school buses) and many hundreds more students were redistricted far from their nearby schools to a distant school (in some cases not even the second or third closest school), resulting in longer bus rides, more complex routes, and higher overall transportation costs than would have otherwise been needed if the redistricting scope had been limited to reducing school overcrowding.

The present-day HCPSS bus transportation debacle should not be a surprise to any HCPSS or County government leaders.  Thousands of community members knew these problems would arise and testified in opposition to the redistricting plans proposed by Superintendent Martirano and Board of Education member Jen Mallo in 2019, which were void of any serious consideration of how they would impact HCPSS students and parents with additional transportation time and disregarded the long-term impacts of new transportation costs and bus route complexities that were guaranteed to arise.


Many community members raised the alarm about how these plans would lead to long-term and ever-increasing transportation issues, even without a significant bus driver shortage, and that they would waste millions of dollars worth of HCPSS funds on additional transportation costs (since the payment formula for HCPSS bus contracts includes mileage) that could be more effectively and more equitably spent on student supports such as hiring paraeducators or reducing student class sizes.


Over the years, and especially since 2019, countless residents have advocated for practical, long-term and equitable redistricting and county development policies such as keeping student walkers as walkers, building more walking paths & sidewalks around schools,  slowing county residential development to a more sustainable level, redistricting with the predominant goal of relieving overcrowding at specific schools, prioritizing neighborhood schools to the greatest extent possible, implementing a true feeder system, and minimizing the overall number of students relocated by a redistricting plan.


However, instead of being taken seriously and publicly praised for their efforts, many who have advocated for these policies have been ignored, misrepresented and maligned by those in positions of power and baselessly labeled and harassed by local activists & media outlets as anti-development NIMBYs (Not-In-My-Back-Yards), “anti-equity”, racist, classist, selfish and a variety of other toxic pejorative labels.


During a private dinner, Superintendent Martirano and Board of Education member Sabina Taj allegedly referred to opponents to Martirano’s redistricting plan disparagingly as “those people”

During her Board of Education re-election campaign, Jen Mallo went so far as to label community members who opposed her bloated redistricting plan as practicing “redlining” around certain HCPSS schools.

As a specific example of how such warnings were not only unheeded but openly mocked, here is an exchange between County Councilman Opel Jones and one of his constituents that occurred during a public hearing for Howard County Council Resolution CR-112-2019  — a bill co-sponsored by Councilman Jones that was intended to give Superintendent Martirano and Board of Education members “political cover” for implementing Martirano’s proposed redistricting plan.

When challenged by County Councilman Opel Jones, the constituent clearly stated that she opposed the desire of Superintendent Martirano and some BOE members (Jen Mallo, Sabina Taj, Mavis Ellis, and Kirsten Coombs) to redistrict thousands more students than needed to relieve school overcrowding, because many students would suffer and perform worse academically from the anxiety and fatigue that would result from longer bus rides and less sleep.  Here are some direct quotes from this exchange:


Councilman Opel Jones: “I think I heard you say that if students were redistricted that academic achievement would go down is that what you were saying? So in other words, if the redistricting took place then we would go from #1 to #3…is that what you’re saying?”

County Resident: “Yes, that’s true, because of long school rides, there [will be] less sleep, and students will perform less (worse)”


Councilman Opel Jones: “OK, OK, thank you very much…..right, so what happens is if your child or any else’s children,  let’s says they know something like… I don’t know…5 + 3 = 8, and they go to a different school, they would no longer know that?  Is that what you’re saying?
[Gasps and exasperation from the audience, at the sheer disrespect of that statement by Councilmember Jones]
County Resident: Students need to sleep and the anxiety will cause people to not be able to function as well.


Instead of respectfully considering these thoughtful comments from a well-meaning constituent, Councilman Jones’ proceeded to use his position of power on the dais to publicly misrepresent & subtly mock her, framing her concerns as foolish. 


Unfortunately, this woman’s prescient concerns are now a reality for many HCPSS students, as evidenced by reports coming directly from HCPSS as well as countless stories posted by parents this month on social media and elsewhere about how their children are already suffering from anxiety and fatigue from the new “long-term” transportation issues HCPSS now faces.


Instead of reflecting on this failure, HCPSS Superintendent Martirano went on to apply for personal awards, such as the “Leaders to Learn From” award.  In similar irony, many of the same Board of Education members and community activists who championed and pushed through this devastating school redistricting plan are now themselves passionately advocating for changes to school start times, since they recognize the health and academic benefits that result from students getting more sleep.

Concluding Thoughts


As the Howard County community grapples with the current school bus staffing shortages, it is critical to reflect on avoidable problems that led to and/or severely exacerbated this situation.  The immediate and long-term transportation problems that HCPSS now faces lay squarely at the feet of Superintendent Martirano and all of the HCPSS Board of Education members and other County government leaders, political activists, special interest groups and members of the local news media who have persistently dismissed, mocked and publicly maligned anyone who has advocated for slower, more sustainable and infrastructure-focused county growth and anyone who has insisted that school redistricting be kept as minimally disruptive as possible and focused predominantly on reducing school overcrowding.


The school transportation and overcrowding challenges Howard County is facing today are only going to increase over time.  As HCPSS proceeds to address the current school bus system issues and considers future redistricting planning, the Board of Education and County government leadership need to seriously reflect on and systemically evaluate the negative impacts that have resulted from such avoidable mistakes as the well-intention, yet disastrously misguided and shortsighted 2019 school redistricting and the County government decisions that have led to years of unsustainable residential overdevelopment that has outpaced the construction of complementary infrastructure (e.g. new schools, hospitals, roads etc.).

What’s needed are long-term strategies that will reduce school bus transportation costs and complexity and improve the lives of all students and parents.  The following are some recommendations:


  • Slowing county residential development to a more sustainable pace and redirecting certain local developer subsidies and taxpayer resources towards building much-needed county infrastructure (particularly new schools) and improving existing infrastructure.  This will significantly reduce HCPSS transportation burdens as well as improve overall student achievement & mental health by reducing the number of overcrowded classrooms & hallways.


  • Redistricting HCPSS schools as judiciously as possible, with the predominant goals of relieving overcrowding at specific schools, minimizing the overall number of students relocated, and minimizing both transportation costs and bus route complexities.  This will maintain stability for as many students as possible and preserve precious capital that HCPSS can then spend on actual student supports such as hiring additional paraeducators and reducing classroom sizes.


  • Preserving student walkers during school redistricting to the greatest extent possible, ensuring walker zones are as small as possible and refraining from their expansion, and working with the County to build more walking paths & sidewalks around schools.  This will lead to better peace of mind and lifestyle for countless students and parents and will also significantly reduce transportation costs & bus route complexities — truly long term investments that will positively impact all current and future generations of Howard County residents.


  • Considering implementation of a true feeder system for HCPSS schools.  If properly developed, such a system may significantly reduce transportation complexity, will improve student stability as they transition from from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school, and will prevent the potential need for parents with students in varying grade levels (e.g. 2nd grade & 6th grade) to be in two places at once when their children are dismissed from school, when their students might otherwise might be on the same campus.


With serious consideration of the above policies and reasonable and respectful cooperation between Howard County government and school system leaders, it should be possible to slowly-but-surely reduce the transportation and overcrowding problems that HCPSS now faces, better utilize Howard County taxpayer dollars, and significantly improve the lives of HCPSS students and families.

For your reference, 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 of Education members to share their personal experiences, thoughts and concerns and insist on more responsible, forward-thinking, leadership:


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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