Howard Week

January 25, 2004

Robey offers downbeat view of county finances

Although Howard County's economy is showing signs of robust recovery, the county government is limping along, and revenues are likely to remain limited, County Executive James N. Robey told the Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 16 in his annual State of the County address.

Requests for school construction money total a record $115 million for the next fiscal year, Robey said, and he faces requests for more than $170 million in capital projects, including "critically, critically, critically needed projects" from other departments, many of which have been put off for years.

But if critics of Robey's 30 percent income tax increase are looking for allies, they did not surface in the business crowd of about 250 people who listened to the executive's speech at a Columbia hotel.

Deferred pension deal for police planned

Hoping to entice veteran police officers to remain on the job longer, Howard County plans to join other area governments that have adopted a deferred pension deal that gives retiring officers a big wad of cash.

"We all compete in this same region. It helps us plan," said Howard Police Chief Wayne Livesay, a 32-year veteran who explained that the pension plan would allow him to know which senior officers would remain and for how long.

Although Livesay said he is committed to stay through the current term of County Executive James N. Robey, the county's previous police chief, he has a financial adviser evaluating his personal financial outlook.

Board ousts O'Rourke as superintendent

Howard County schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, who has led the state's top education system for 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 Monday night.

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

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 an inquiry into his participation in a pension program.

Church cuts back on expansion plan

A church in Columbia has scaled back its expansion plans from 1,500 seats to 1,000, an attorney who represents the congregation told the Howard County Council on Tuesday night.

Attorney Richard B. Talkin told the council that church leaders had decided on the smaller expansion plan, which remains contingent on approval of rezoning for the property. Neighbors have said the expansion could overwhelm their community of small homes.

O'Rourke refuses to limit grade-changing probe

Schools Superintendent John O'Rourke said Wednesday that he had 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 that 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," he said.

School board Chairman Courtney Watson denied that she or anyone on the board had tried to restrict the investigation. But she said members asked why it was taking so long, what the investigators were assigned to do and how much it would cost the system. And Watson confirmed O'Rourke's assertion that the board thought it better that he leave soon.

Zoning Board rejects Rouse New Town proposal

On a unanimous vote, the Howard County Zoning Board rejected Wednesday night a Rouse Co. proposal to add a significant number of residences in Columbia's downtown.

The board said it wanted to study and possibly modify Columbia's New Town zoning request before allowing a major change to the planned community's urban center.

Board Chairman Ken Ulman said the county will appoint a citizens committee to do an in-depth analysis of Columbia's zoning regulations, which were drafted in the 1960s. The development company is welcome to submit another petition if the zoning regulations are revised, he said.

O'Rourke to keep role in grades investigation

The Howard County school board denied a request Thursday 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 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.

"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."

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