Board denies inquiry change

O'Rourke will still head grade-tampering probe

Some question his impartiality

Parents call on officials to investigate all schools

Howard County

January 23, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school board denied a request last night to remove Superintendent John R. O'Rourke from an investigation into accusations that his second-in-command improperly intervened to change a relative's grade.

Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham asked the Board of Education yesterday to replace O'Rourke with someone "truly impartial and unbiased." But board attorney Judith S. Bresler said the law did not allow for that change.

"The statute gives the authority to the superintendent in the first instance to review allegations and to ultimately make a decision," Bresler said.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article that ran in some editions of The Sun yesterday, the employment status of Oakland Mills High School athletic director Ken Hovet was incorrect. He has been placed on administrative leave without pay.
The Sun regrets the error.

"If somebody feels that investigation is not legitimate for whatever reason," she said, "they have an opportunity for a hearing before the Board of Education, at which point they may bring out whatever shortcomings that occurred."

O'Rourke launched the inquiry Dec. 4 after allegations surfaced that Statham - who some said last fall would make a good replacement for O'Rourke - and Assistant Superintendent Roger Plunkett abused their powers in the alteration of the transcript of a Statham relative at Centennial High School. Both officials vehemently deny the accusation.

The superintendent has said he hired an outside firm to conduct the inquiry, which he directs, to ensure that "there was no question about the objectivity."

But in a letter to the school board yesterday, Statham's attorney said he feared that O'Rourke - who was told last week he would not be rehired when his contract expires June 30 - was partial.

"Mr. O'Rourke has throughout the course of this investigation exhibited an inability and/or unwillingness to be fair," lawyer Ron Cherry wrote, further calling the superintendent's recent posture "reckless, combative, defensive and vindictive."

Cherry declined to elaborate last night, saying he was saving the details for the board.

In an interview Wednesday, O'Rourke intimated that his handling of the investigation may have been cause for his contract not being renewed and being asked to vacate his position early.

Statham's request was the second time yesterday that the board had been asked to take over a grade-changing investigation. At a 4 p.m. meeting, about two dozen frustrated parents and students from Oakland Mills High School implored members to "act now before it is too late."

On Jan. 12, O'Rourke had announced the results of a two-month investigation, concluding that at least one grade of an Oakland Mills athlete had been changed to make him eligible to play football. The revelation caused the varsity team to forfeit its season and the school's athletic director and football coach, Ken Hovet, to lose his job.

The investigation further revealed that some junior varsity athletes were academically ineligible to participate, and their seasons were also forfeited.

But few details were given, leaving the community to wonder what was going on. On online message boards, parents tried to make sense of the news and questioned why their school was being targeted, why the process was shrouded in mystery and what merited such strict punishments.

Debbi Anceravage, who has a freshman daughter at the school, said she was hoping the board would offer some honest answers.

"We want the board to do some fair investigating of all schools - not just Oakland Mills - and find a fair and just solution to all of the many problems going on in this county," she said.

"The school is being torn apart, with students wondering who to trust, the faculty trying to decide whether to stay, the coaches wondering whether to coach in the spring," said former Oakland Mills PTA President John McKitterick. "The process by which the central office has conducted this whole matter has been badly botched."

McKitterick said the students have suffered irreparable harm, particularly those in the classes formerly taught by Hovet, who was removed from the school on administrative leave in November.

"There were two classes of an [advanced placement] American history course that were not being taught by the suspended history teacher, but rather by an emergency substitute unqualified to teach history," McKitterick said. "There are 60 kids who probably can't take the [advanced placement] exam in May."

A certified history teacher was brought in two months after Hovet left.

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