Philip Martin has reached out to many graduates in his 15 years as head of Terrebonne’s public schools, but this week may be his last. Martin will retire on June 30 when his contract as superintendent ends.
“I’ve enjoyed my work, but I’m also looking forward to retirement,” Martin said in a recent interview.
The Superintendent is the chief administrator of Louisiana’s 13th largest school system. It has approximately 17,000 enrolled students and employs 1,700 teachers and assistants with a total annual budget of nearly $200 million.
Martin, 70, has said more than once that helping students is what he will miss most of his 48-year career in education.
“When you meet a former student-turned-parent and they say thank you for something you taught them,” Martin said, “that’s probably the most rewarding experience.”
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One such former student is school board member Michael LaGarde, 50, who has known Martin since seventh grade. He said he already misses Martin, adding that the school board would have given him another year if he had wanted it.
LaGarde recalls how Martin, then the principal, paddled him at the age of 12 for misconduct at school. Well, according to LaGarde, the two joke about the incident.
“From being a student to working with him, I’ve seen a different man,” LaGarde said. “He’s a very fair guy.”
LaGarde commended Martin’s efforts to promote diversity among the school’s teachers and staff.
“He worked very hard with James Charles to get people of color into the school system,” LaGarde said.
Charles, who broke racial lines as the first black man to serve as a high school principal and assistant superintendent in the parish of Terrebonne, died in 2020 at the age of 77.
Martin’s office is filled with photos of his family, as well as pictures of ducks and deer, and he said he plans to spend time with all of them when he retires.
Over the past three years, Martin has led the district through some of its toughest challenges. The global COVID pandemic and government-mandated health precautions forced major changes in how students were educated, and schools had to adapt as waves of the deadly virus swept through the community.
While other communities went online only or enacted a combination of online and face-to-face classes, Terrebonne continued in-person classes. Laptops and distance learning were offered, but Martin said they were nothing like classroom-based learning.
“COVID has taught us that a teacher in the classroom has not been replaced,” he said. “But our children showed at the end of the year that it was not a wasted year.”
Hurricane Ida, which struck on August 29, destroyed or damaged many of the system’s buildings and prompted changes in planning and other procedures. Students from several schools in the community’s bayou communities shared buildings. Ellender High students attended classes at Terrebonne High in the afternoons. South Terrebonne students did the same at HL Bourgeois High.
“I’ve been in the district for 48 years and this is by far the most destructive hurricane I’ve ever experienced,” Martin said.
Martin said he was proud that as soon as power was restored, students were back in the classroom. Recovery from the storm remains a top priority and will be for years to come, he added. Repairs are expected to cost well over $200 million. Temporary campuses are being built at Ellender High in Houma and South Terrebonne High in Bourg.
“So at least these kids are going back to their campus, not their building, but their campus while their building is either repaired or replaced,” Martin said. “And it’s going to take years, whatever happens, it’s going to take a long time.”
Martin’s decisions during the pandemic and after Ida didn’t please everyone, school board president Greg Harding said, but it was inevitable. Harding likened it to calling a basketball game, although the problems were far more serious.
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“You have to call one or the other, if you don’t call one or the other everyone is mad at you, but if you call one, only half of them are mad at you,” Häring said. “No one had a playbook to refer to [for COVID], and it was like going ahead with what you thought was the best decision at the time. … I think we did the best we could with the information that was provided to us.”
Harding cited a new Southdown Elementary School, a new class wing at HL Bourgeois High, a new Grand Caillou Middle School, and the expansion of Mulberry Elementary School among Martin’s achievements with the school board. The district also improved dramatically in terms of its state academic performance scores under Martin’s tenure.
“It will be sad to see Mr. Martin go, but on the other hand it will also be exciting to see a new superintendent come in and work with that person,” Harding said.
Martin will be succeeded by Assistant Superintendent Bubba Orgeron, who will begin as superintendent on July 1.