Schools chief gets first taste of Maryland

New Yorker learns ropes of job, MVA

July 09, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

New Howard County schools superintendent John R. O'Rourke had been in town only four days and on his job just two when he found out what it's really like to be a Maryland resident.

He went to the MVA.

"I went to the one in Columbia and stood there and got to the front of the line and found out it was the wrong place," said O'Rourke, 55, smiling good-naturedly.

Welcome to Maryland, John O'Rourke from New York.

Many things are different; but a lot of things are the same.

For example, O'Rourke left his job as superintendent of the Pittsford Central School District in Rochester at 4:30 p.m. the Friday before the July Fourth holiday, signing official papers until he backed away from his desk for the last time. He started as the head of Howard County Schools at 8 a.m. Monday morning and was greeted with a stack of official papers to sign.

The stack, Human Resources Director Mamie Perkins said, was "nasty."

By the end of O'Rourke's first week- one he envisioned would be slow - he said he felt sure he had worked more than four days.

He finally finished signing all the papers, selected a health care provider, opened his first new bank account in 33 years, moved into a temporary apartment until his house in Fulton is built, got his driver's license at the Motor Vehicle Administration, found himself lost in Columbia a few too many times and took a walking tour or two of the Board of Education, stopping every few feet to meet his employees.

"I've met a lot of people, but I can't say I've met everybody," O'Rourke said. "I can say everybody I've met has been very nice."

They've been nice enough not to make maddening references or comparisons to his predecessor, Michael E. Hickey - except occasionally, and in O'Rourke's favor.

"Oh, you know lacrosse?!" said a thrilled director of athletics, Don Disney, as the two were chatting about the various sports offered in Howard County. "When Dr. Hickey came in, I said, `What do you think of lacrosse?' and he said, `I've never been there!'"

O'Rourke replied, with a smile, that being superintendent of schools and a goalie on a lacrosse team have a lot of similarities.

For O'Rourke, the joke was a Hickey-like moment; the former superintendent was quick to quip.

But O'Rourke has ushered in a new era. Hickey drove a silver VW Bug; O'Rourke drives an SUV. Hickey was confounded by his e-mail; O'Rourke plans to "synchronize his Palm Pilot" every day with the schedule on his assistant's computer. Hickey was a flamboyant dresser; O'Rourke is sophisticated but traditional.

But like Hickey, O'Rourke was well-loved in his former job. When he was named a finalist for the position in Howard County, Pittsford administrators and teachers lamented their loss and congratulated Howard on its gain.

Without any major issues, policies or events to use as benchmarks, O'Rourke seems to be on his way to developing a similar reputation in Howard.

His office is full of flowers and gift baskets. He thinks that his staff is nice; they, in turn, think he's nice, too.

"He seems really, really nice," said Theo Gousis, a data processor in the district's payroll office. "I think he'll do very well here."

"He's a very nice, easy-going person," said Kathy Chiacchio, O'Rourke's administrative assistant.

"He was great, a very nice gentleman," said Dee D. Allen, a fingerprint technician in Ellicott City who inked O'Rourke's fingertips last week, as is required by Maryland law of all school employees.

Allen, admittedly, was a little star struck.

"You're my second celebrity," she gushed, rolling O'Rourke's blackened, flattened fingers across a card. (The first was a part-owner of the Ravens.)

O'Rourke, however, said he doesn't feel like a celebrity, although as the head of a successful 43,000-student district - five times the size of the Pittsford school system - his actions and thoughts soon will become the topic of breakfast conversations and Washington-Baltimore area news stories.

"I'm not particularly nervous," O'Rourke said, clasping his fingers over one pinstriped knee. "I'm excited."

This first week, O'Rourke didn't look too excited. Instead he looked serious, smiling little, talking even less and listening, with his fingers on his chin, most of each day.

He's got a lot to learn, to be sure.

In addition to figuring out how to drive "through Columbia, instead of around it," as O'Rourke did all last week, he'll also have to learn about the people in Columbia - an increasing number of whom don't speak English, live at or below the poverty level, or are African-American, Latino or Asian. Though he grew up in Brooklyn, O'Rourke spent eight years in wealthy, homogeneous Pittsford.

"It was different," O'Rourke said last week, referring to the Summer Bridge academic enrichment program he visited Thursday at Wilde Lake High School, where his was - out of about 100 students' and a dozen adults' - the only white face.

"But it was just fine. I was very comfortable."

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