In Howard County, many aren't sorry to see O'Rourke go

Most officials support school board's decision to oust superintendent

Others are stunned by news

January 21, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

A school superintendent who likes to dictate more than collaborate -- which has been said about Howard County's John R. O'Rourke -- was bound to butt heads with a school board that has spent the past year flexing its muscle.

That conflict set up a power struggle between superintendent and school board, a fight O'Rourke lost last week when board members told him that his contract would not be renewed when it expires June 30.

The news stunned many in Howard County, which has seen only four schools superintendents in the past 55 years. Some worry that this will be another blot on Howard's otherwise stellar education reputation, which has taken multiple hits during the past few months, including allegations of improper grade-changing by people in O'Rourke's Cabinet, forfeited sports seasons after ineligible players were discovered at Columbia's Oakland Mills High School and the exodus of a half-dozen top school system officials.

"Howard County is not used to this kind of negative publicity," said William Davis, assistant principal at Atholton High School in Columbia. "I think everybody is in shock."

Board members will say only that O'Rourke's management style, which has been described as uncommunicative, was among the determining factors in ending his tenure. But members have previously criticized O'Rourke for overstepping his bounds as their employee by trying to tell them how to govern and leaving them out of important decisions.

Board of Education members have spent the past 14 months trying to forge and rebuild partnerships, and open lines of communication, after multiple allegations that past and some present members have operated in secret or violated the state's open-meeting laws.

They have been making a public point to show who is the boss in their relationship with the superintendent after questions about their leadership arose in November 2002. At the time, the board agreed to place an addendum on O'Rourke's contract, since rescinded, that promised him a year's salary if his contract wasn't renewed. Some characterized O'Rourke's request as extortion.

Yesterday, school board members traveled the county to spread the message that Howard does have leaders, with or without O'Rourke.

"We felt it was important to go out into the schools today to reassure staff that we will get the system though this crisis," said board Chairman Courtney Watson, who had visited nine schools by early afternoon. "We wanted to make sure they felt comfortable the board was strong."

One reason for the board's change of heart on O'Rourke could be turnover. Watson joined the board after the vote on O'Rourke's contract addendum, taking Jane Schuchardt's seat in December 2002. When she ran for the seat, Watson promised to hold the superintendent accountable "for issues that are important to the public."

Joshua Kaufman is also new to the five-member board, taking over the spot Virginia Charles vacated in June.

School board members weren't the only ones who chafed under O'Rourke's leadership,. School system and teacher union surveys also have shown that parents and educators have little faith in the superintendent, and some community members launched campaigns to bring him down.

"School systems are not built on a military hierarchy. They're built on relationships," said Gene Streagle, who retired as the school system's director of high schools in 2001. "That's the one thing I always thought was a major difference [between the previous superintendent and O'Rourke] -- the relationship between the superintendent and the staff."

Different styles

Michael E. Hickey spent 16 years in Howard until O'Rourke took over in 2000. He knew the names of school staff, Streagle said -- he was visible, he was accessible and he let administrators steer their own ships.

O'Rourke is the opposite. He set up a Cabinet in charge of responsibilities Hickey used to manage himself, he spends less time in schools, he asks principals to adopt a more uniform style, he makes demands.

"I probably would have been a little uncomfortable with that style," said Streagle, who also acknowledged that he might not have retired when he did if Hickey had remained. "But then again, when you're an underling, you do what you're told" -- until you lose trust in your leader, said Streagle, who teaches a leadership class to educators at the Johns Hopkins University.

"If a leader loses trust, the troops don't necessarily want to follow the directions they're given," he said. "First morale goes, then trust follows; and once trust goes, you have a system that sometimes goes to shambles. That's usually the track."

It's a point some fear Howard is speeding toward.

"If any of us think this system will run itself by itself without leadership, I do believe that's the wrong way to think," said Jerry Bialecki, PTA president at Howard High School in Ellicott City. "We need a leader, and it concerns me that this process could take a while."

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