June 22, 2022

The retirement of the director of public schools in Terrebonne is approaching, according to Martin

Philip Martin has addressed many graduates in his 15 years as head of public schools in the parish of Terrebonne, but this week may have been his last. Martin will retire on June 30 at the end of his superintendent contract.

“I loved what I did, but I’m also looking forward to retirement,” Martin said in a recent interview.

The superintendent is the principal administrator of Louisiana’s 13th largest school system. It enrolls approximately 17,000 students and employs 1,700 teachers and support workers with a combined budget of nearly $200 million per year.

Martin, 70, has said more than once that the thing he will miss most about his 48-year career in education is working to help students.

“When you meet a former student who is now a parent and they 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 and added that the school board would have given him another year if he wanted to.

LaGarde remembers then-headmaster Martin paddling him for misbehavior at school when he was 12. Now, LaGarde said, the two joke about the incident.

“To go from being a student to working alongside him, I saw a different man,” LaGarde said. “He’s a very fair guy.”

LaGarde praised Martin’s efforts to encourage diversity among teachers and school employees.

“He worked very hard with James Charles to bring people of color into the school system,” LaGarde said.

Charles, who broke racial boundaries as the first black person to serve as high school principal and assistant superintendent in the parish of Terrebonne, died in 2020 at the age of 77.

Martin’s desk is filled with photos of his family, as well as pictures of ducks and deer, and he said he plans to spend time with each of them during his retirement.

Over the past three years, Martin has led the district through some of its toughest challenges. The global COVID pandemic and state-mandated health precautions forced major changes to the way students were educated, and schools had to adapt as waves of the deadly virus swept through the parish.

While other parishes have gone online only or adopted a combination of online and on-campus instruction, Terrebonne has continued with in-person classes. Laptops and distance learning have been offered, but Martin said they don’t compare to classroom teaching.

“COVID has taught us that a teacher in the classroom has not been replaced,” he said. “But our children, at the end of the year, demonstrated that it was not a wasted year.”

Hurricane Ida, which struck on August 29, destroyed or damaged many buildings in the system and caused changes in planning and other procedures. Students from several schools in bayou communities in the parish shared buildings. Students from Ellender High School took afternoon classes at Terrebonne High School. South Terrebonne students did the same at HL Bourgeois High School.

“I’ve been in the district for 48 years, and this is by far the most deeply destructive hurricane I’ve experienced,” Martin said.

Martin said he was proud that as soon as power was restored, students were back in class. Recovering from the storm remains a top priority and will be for years to come, he added. Repairs are expected to cost more than $200 million. Temporary campuses are being built at Ellender High in Houma and South Terrebonne High in Bourg.

“So at least those kids will be going back to their campus, not to their building, but to their campus while their building is repaired or replaced,” Martin said. “And it’s going to take years to do, whatever happens, it’s going to take a long time.”

Martin’s decisions during the pandemic and after Ida didn’t sit well with everyone, school board chairman Greg Harding said, but it was inevitable. Harding likened it to calling a basketball game, even though the issues were much bigger.

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“You have to call one or the other, if you don’t call one or the other, you have everyone mad at you, but if you call one, you only have the half of them mad at you,” Harding said. “No one had a playbook to go by [for COVID], and it kind of felt like you were making what you thought was the best decision at the time. … I think we did our best with the information given to us.”

Harding cited a new Southdown Elementary, a new classroom wing at HL Bourgeois High, a new Grand Caillou Middle School, and the expansion of Mulberry Elementary among Martin’s accomplishments with the school board. The district also significantly improved its academic performance scores under Martin’s tenure.

“It’s going to be sad to see Mr. Martin go, but on the other hand, it’s going to be exciting to see a new superintendent come in and work with this person,” Harding said.

Martin will be replaced by Assistant Superintendent Bubba Orgeron, who takes over as superintendent on July 1.