Board hearing on Venter appeal delayed

Move is attempt to thwart petition, fired official says

Howard County

January 14, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Depicting himself as a martyr who lost his job because he stood up to a tyrannical boss, former Howard County school system chief business officer Bruce M. Venter accused Superintendent John R. O'Rourke yesterday of being a bully and a badger and trying to thwart Venter's attempts to appeal his September termination.

"As far as I can tell, the superintendent does not want to deal with this thing," Venter said. "What is he afraid of?"

Venter called a news conference at the Bagel Bin in Clarksville because a Board of Education hearing for scheduled this week to determine whether his dismissal was legal was postponed until Feb. 4.

Allen Dyer, Venter's attorney, suggested the delay was an attempt by O'Rourke to keep his job, which comes up for contract renewal Feb. 1, though the board will evaluate O'Rourke's performance in a closed meeting tomorrow.

The nature of Venter's information could be damaging to the superintendent, Dyer said.

But O'Rourke said he "hadn't even thought about that," and his attorney, Leslie Stellman, who also represents the school board in a case Dyer brought against it, denied the allegation.

"It was just purely a calendar and a conflict problem and not intended in any way to stall past the time in which the board is evaluating Mr. O'Rourke's performance," Stellman said last night. "In this day and age of No Child Left Behind and accountability, there are 100 factors - none of which involve Dr. Venter's termination - that the board will be using."

Venter offered a six-page summary at the news conference that he intends to show to the Board of Education. It details explanations behind the three main reasons Venter said O'Rourke has given for firing him: withholding information about a new county high school, mishandling a power outage in September at Dasher Green Owen Brown School and improperly addressing the square-footage needs of kindergarten classrooms.

Venter's summary says those accusations are wrong and provides his recollection of events, which include a thorough presentation of high school information, a no-fault miscommunication during the power failure and the ball-dropping of another in regard to kindergarten classrooms.

It adds that O'Rourke is prone to yelling and treating employees in an "intimidating and demeaning" manner.

"I am where I am today because I would not be intimidated by the superintendent. He leads through bullying and badgering," Venter wrote, adding aloud that he was "the only administrator that would speak up to him, and an opposing point of view is not tolerated in that Cabinet."

O'Rourke said he is neither a bully nor a badger, and that his leadership style is "participatory, open and it's respectful."

Stellman concurred, saying he has known O'Rourke since he arrived in Howard County and found him to be "a very assertive leader, but he is certainly not what you would call a bully."

Venter and Dyer are also upset that the school system is charging $1,100 to provide copies of files and documents Venter created while working in Howard County so he can build a case for overturning his termination, which he seeks from the board at his hearing.

Stellman said Venter wanted hundreds of documents that would require "a lot of clerical time to retrieve," and the price tag is reasonable and permissible by the state's Public Information Act, which says a requester must pay for clerical time of more than two hours and copy fees.

Venter said he would not return to Howard, if asked, while O'Rourke is in his position. If Venter's appeal is successful, he would seek compensation for the time he has been out of work.

Stellman said he would not comment on appeal matters.

"It's a closed, private personnel matter," he said. "It really should not be tried in the press."

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