Maryland law tying hands of school board

Panel can't force chief out unless state steps in

`A contract is a contract'

O'Rourke maintains he won't leave post early

Howard County

January 28, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

It has been nearly two weeks since Howard County's school board told Superintendent John R. O'Rourke it wanted him to go.

But with five months remaining on his contract, he is refusing to budge. And under Maryland law, there is very little the school board can do about it.

"My contract is over June 30, that's the only thing I know," O'Rourke said yesterday. He has maintained that he will not be pressured to leave early.

Maryland law says that only the state superintendent can remove a local superintendent during the length of his or her contract, and then only if the official has willfully neglected duties or has been immoral, insubordinate or incompetent - none of which apply to O'Rourke.

The measure is supposed to be a "check" on the system, protecting local superintendents from unwarranted termination, said William Reinhard, a spokesman for the State Board of Education.

But it is a singular quirk that many boards condemn, saying they should be in control of their only direct employee.

"Maryland is unique in terms of carving out a role for the state superintendent and even the state board in terms of hiring and firing. I know of no other state where that is the case," said Carl W. Smith, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, which has taken a strong stance against the requirement.

Under state statutes, Baltimore's is the only system in Maryland with the power to fire its schools chief.

That means the Howard school board's options are limited. It will have to live with O'Rourke until the end of June unless the state superintendent steps in or the board strikes a deal.

In 2002, Prince George's County school board members tried to fire Superintendent Iris T. Metts, but their decision was unanimously overturned by the State Board of Education. The local board members were subsequently stripped of their power and replaced with state appointees.

Members have said they are willing to discuss buying out O'Rourke's contract - the typical parting route between boards and superintendents - which could cost the board tens of thousands of dollars.

O'Rourke's annual salary is $197,300. Five months of that, the time left on the contract, is more than $82,000, and that does not include accrued vacation and sick time.

Even with the potentially staggering price, board members thought it best for them, O'Rourke and the school system to "begin this transition as soon as possible," member James P. O'Donnell said. "Someone who's a lame duck might not be as effective."

Despite the standoff between O'Rourke and the school board, the most recent board meeting produced no barbed exchanges or other signs of tension.

But things are turning ugly. In statements to the news media, the board and the superintendent are locked in a public debate about the details of the refusal to renew.

O'Rourke has hinted that the board is trying to interfere in an investigation of school system employees accused of grade tampering. Board members deny that, calling the allegation an example of the type of thing they were trying to avoid by asking O'Rourke to leave early.

But Howard's superintendent has steadfastly stressed his commitment to stay and fulfill his contract, despite growing tension.

"It's my contract, I own it," O'Rourke said last week. "I'm not going to be pressured out."

O'Rourke also believes the board is questioning the legality of his participation in a pension program - allegedly before it was offered to other school employees - as leverage to get him to leave early, which the board says is untrue. In a letter dated Jan. 19, he asked State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to intervene.

"He asked me to look into the pension situation, and I am talking with our counsel for the office over the appropriateness of what has happened," said Grasmick, who sometimes takes a mediator position between boards and superintendents.

But at this point, "there does not appear to be anything to mediate," said Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, who has not asked for Grasmick's help. "It's really in the superintendent's hands."

In January last year, state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Republican from Howard County, introduced a bill that would have given school boards across the state the power to hire and fire superintendents without the state's interference.

"The superintendent is the only employee that they hire directly," Kittleman said at the time. "He shouldn't be able to tell them to `go to hell because Nancy S. Grasmick won't let you fire me.' "

But the bill was dead a month later, after receiving an unfavorable review from the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Kittleman said yesterday that he will not reintroduce the bill this year because he received little support.

Smith said his organization had hoped Kittleman's bill would become law, but because it did not Howard County is in a pickle.

"A contract is a contract. [O'Rourke] is the superintendent until June 30, 2004. That's incontrovertible," Smith said.

O'Rourke and the Howard board have pledged to work together if they must.

"We're very focused on finding the best person for the superintendent job, going forward, and in the meantime, the board will do what it needs to do to keep the system operational and moving," Watson said.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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