A career marked by quiet intensity

O'Rourke: Former colleagues remember him as a driven administrator, not a brash bully.

January 21, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes and Tricia Bishop | Gus G. Sentementes and Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

When John R. O'Rourke ascended to Howard County's top education post nearly four years ago, the school psychologist-turned-administrator beat out six other candidates with his award-studded credentials and a reputation for being a good listener.

The expectations were high and the praise was effusive for O'Rourke, when he came to Howard three years after being named the nation's superintendent of the year.

Now, O'Rourke is being ousted in June after the county school board refused to renew his contract. The reason, the board says, is a clash over leadership style. One former school official, Bruce M. Venter, the chief business officer whom O'Rourke fired in September, called him a manipulative bully prone to outbursts.

But that characterization of the 59-year-old Fulton resident doesn't square with the perceptions of others who know him, professionally and personally, within and beyond Howard County.

"Holy cow, your threshold for bullying must be a lot lower than it is here in New York," said Tom Rogers, executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, based in Albany, N.Y.

Rogers, who knows O'Rourke from his time leading an upstate New York school district, heads a group of more than 800 top education officials in New York. He said he would place O'Rourke in the "top 5 percent" of superintendents he knows, in terms of leadership and expertise.

"He's not the kind of person that I could ever imagine in a shouting match with anybody. He's one of the most focused and intense people I know. He's a very quiet man. It's very hard to imagine him as a bully."

"Quiet" and "intense" are two adjectives often used to describe O'Rourke. He bows his head when thinking of responses to questions and folds his hands before his mouth in a prayer position. He looks at a fixed point on the ground when making speeches and shies away from making eye contact.

"I think if you were to characterize his personality, he's an introvert in a job that demands that you be an extrovert," said Joe Staub, president of the county teachers union.

O'Rourke's career in public education began when, after working as a school psychologist in a suburb of Syracuse, N.Y., for about a dozen years, he filled in for an ailing colleague at the district's central office. He was named the permanent director for pupil personnel services a few months later.

He rose to become that district's assistant superintendent and then left in 1988 to run a school district in Fulton, N.Y, for four years. His last job in New York before coming to Howard County was running the school district in Pittsford, N.Y., a wealthy suburb of Rochester.

It was during his eight-year tenure at Pittsford that O'Rourke distinguished himself from his peers in the state and across the country. He was named New York's superintendent of the year in 1997 - and won the top honor nationwide that same year.

"He was quite well respected," said Mary Alice Price, the current Pittsford superintendent who knew O'Rourke when she was leading another school district in the same county. "I think people were quite surprised to hear some of the descriptors they had seen applied to him" in recent news accounts, Price said. "Certainly they didn't feel they applied to the man they worked with."

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