Howard schools chief told to leave

Board votes not to renew superintendent contract amid investigations

January 20, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Howard County School Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, who has led the state's top education system for the past three years, will be forced from his post by June after the school board unanimously rejected his contract renewal.

"All I can say is that we believe the school system needs a different leadership style," board Chairman Courtney Watson said last night.

Questions about O'Rourke's management abilities have surfaced recently amid a series of setbacks in a system that has consistently been outstanding in terms of test scores and student achievement.

Last week, an investigation confirmed that improper grade changes were made to an athlete's transcript at Columbia's Oakland Mills High School, and an investigation is continuing into further improper grade changing at Centennial High School in Ellicott City that allegedly involved two members of O'Rourke's top staff.

Also last week, the school system's former chief business officer, Bruce M. Venter, whom O'Rourke fired abruptly in September, accused the superintendent of being a manipulative bully prone to embarrassing outbursts, which O'Rourke denied.

In a statement, O'Rourke said the Board of Education is pressuring him to leave his position by the end of the month - five months before his contract expires - or face inquiry into his questionable participation in a pension program.

Watson said that was "absolutely untrue," but she confirmed that the board did tell O'Rourke on Thursday that members would not be offering him a second four-year contract. His current contract expires June 30.

By law, a school board cannot renew a superintendent's contract until Feb. 1 in the year it expires - 2004 in O'Rourke's case - but members must do it by March 1.

School boards, with the exception of Baltimore's, are also prohibited by law from firing a superintendent, their only employee, although they can elect not to renew the superintendent's contract.

By stating that he is being pressured to leave early, O'Rourke appears to believe he has been fired.

"The pension is completely irrelevant to the decision we made and the transition we were trying to work out with him," Watson said, adding that members offered O'Rourke several exit plans and expected to hear from him yesterday.

Instead, he chose to contact the press through a news release, she said.

O'Rourke did not return calls to his home for comment.

Watson said information came to the board late last month suggesting O'Rourke had taken advantage of a tax-deferred retirement program before it became available to all employees.

O'Rourke's statement said he pulled his contribution and paid all taxes as soon as he realized the option was not available to all.

Still, Watson said it was a non-issue in this decision.

"We're deeply disappointed at the tactics the superintendent has decided to use," Watson said, alluding to the news release.

"But having said that, this board is a very strong board, and we will move forward and do what we need to do to continue to make the best decisions for the school system."

Watson would say only that management style was a factor in the board's unanimous decision to deny O'Rourke's request for a second four-year term and that his contacting the press was a prime example.

She said the board is "looking for a more collaborative relationship with the staff, the board, the and community," from its superintendent. "And we're looking for more communication."

A performance-evaluation memo obtained by The Sun and sent to O'Rourke on March 10, read: "Criticizing the board and or individual board members, particularly in the presence of third parties, is unacceptable and is not productive to board/superintendent team development." It also stated that board members are frequently left out of the loop.

"Often the board is not informed of how a school situation is handled," the document states, adding later that the board requests "more timely explanation." It also accused O'Rourke of ignoring repeated member requests to be involved in the budget development process.

The decision "doesn't surprise me with all the things going on with the school system over the last six months or so," said Howard County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, who pointed to the investigations into grade changing and Venter's dismissal.

"Just the turnover there altogether," added Kittleman, a western county Republican. "Having so many people leave, while it certainly doesn't confirm anything, it does make you wonder why."

Just 14 months ago, the school board thought O'Rourke was the secret to success. When the superintendent said he was being courted by a Connecticut school system, four out of five board members voted for an addendum to his contract promising to renew when the time came or pay him one year's salary - about $200,000.

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