Howard school chief says board sought to limit grade inquiry

O'Rourke hints chairman protecting administrator

Bitter clash over his dismissal

January 22, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Howard County School Superintendent John O'Rourke said yesterday that he refused a request by the school board chairman to limit his investigation into improper grade changing at an Ellicott City high school by two of his top aides - a decision he suggested might have cost him his job.

"They knew I was capable of firing somebody for grade tampering," said O'Rourke, who was told last week that his contract would not be renewed when it expires June 30. He also said he was being pressured to leave this month. "If I left by Feb. 1, the whole thing would be the responsibility of somebody else to deal with."

School Board Chairman Courtney Watson strongly denied that she - or anyone on the board - tried to restrict the investigation. But members did ask about it, she said: why it was taking so long, what the investigators were assigned to do, how much it would cost the system.

And Watson did confirm O'Rourke's assertion that the board thought it better he leave sooner rather than later.

"In my mind, in our mind, in the board's mind, it was not in the best interests of the school system to have the relationship continue once he knew [the board was not renewing his contract]," Watson said. "We could not count on the superintendent not being retaliatory after he knew of our decision."

O'Rourke is investigating allegations that Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett and Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham abused their power by changing the transcript of a Statham relative at Centennial High School.

On Jan. 12, O'Rourke announced the results of a separate investigation that confirmed improper grade changes to an athlete's transcript at Columbia's Oakland Mills High School and resulted in the removal of the athletic director.

Last week, the school board told O'Rourke he would not be asked back to serve a second four-year term in large part because members had trouble with his leadership style and lack of collaboration.

But in an interview with The Sun yesterday - which O'Rourke requested and attended with a list of talking points and a stack of documentation an inch thick - the superintendent carefully outlined a series of events that insinuate:

The board, under Watson, terminated O'Rourke because it was trying to protect an administrator from investigation fallout - specifically dismissal.

The board had no substantive reason not to renew O'Rourke's contract and gave him a positive review in June.

The board refused to meet with O'Rourke when he requested it to discuss an unsubstantiated allegation that he improperly participated in a school system pension fund before it was offered to other employees.

The board was blackmailing O'Rourke into leaving before his contract was up by suggesting it would release information about his pension participation.

O'Rourke never drew specific conclusions, but he made clear the information he wanted absorbed and interpreted during the meeting, pausing to read things twice, emphasize points with props and offer advice as to what would make a good quote.

"This is my 36th year; I've been a superintendent since 1988. I have the ability to be precise with my language," he said.

But on each point, Watson countered with explanations that propose O'Rourke is being vindictive.

For one, she said, the board had "adamantly" insisted that before he left, O'Rourke complete his investigation at Centennial, which began Dec. 9, and wasn't interested in stalling it.

"He kept giving us time frames that he would miss," she said. "He would say it would be completed in two weeks; they would go by and we would ask again what's going on with the investigation, and he would say it would take another two to three weeks. It just kept happening over and over again. ..."

Parents were calling daily to inquire about the results, Watson said, and board members didn't want a repeat of a separate investigation into grade changing at Oakland Mills High School, which took two months to complete.

"We wanted it to be handled efficiently," Watson said, adding that there is no reason for the board to try to protect O'Rourke's chosen staff from any results or consequences - negative or positive.

The board appears to have praised O'Rourke's performance as late as June 13, however, when it put together an end-of-school year evaluation, because four days later members granted him a raise and benefits that added up to $11,448. O'Rourke said the evaluation, which he did not see until Nov. 11, called his work "exemplary."

Watson said she could not comment on performance evaluations because of personnel privacy laws but she would be "happy to release" the documents to the public if O'Rourke signed a waiver of his right to confidentiality.

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