N.Y. board said to have clashed with O'Rourke

Similar complaints cost schools chief Howard job

January 30, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

John R. O'Rourke, Howard County's lame-duck schools superintendent, was ousted from the first school district he led in New York, amid the same crush of complaints that has cost him the job in Howard.

Some former members of the Fulton, N.Y., school board said O'Rourke belittled those he disagreed with, did not consult with the board on budgetary matters and did not keep them informed on important issues.

A few were so eager to get rid of him, they hid his alleged faults from districts interested in hiring him, they said.

"I feel a little bit guilty about that," said Janice Bruni, who was on the seven-member Fulton school board when O'Rourke was superintendent there, from 1988 to 1992.

When the Pittsford, N.Y., school district came calling in 1992, Bruni said, she told them selective truths about O'Rourke in the hope he would be hired elsewhere before his contract expired in Fulton.

"The other board members said, `We don't care if you lie to the Pittsford people, just get rid of him,'" said Bruni, who remembers O'Rourke as a divisive factor in their school system of 4,400 students, leading board members to deny his request for contract renewal in 1992. Howard County officials did not consult Fulton before they hired O'Rourke in 2000.

"He tried to make the administrators fall guys for things that weren't working," said Bruni, who now lives in North Carolina.

But O'Rourke, who called Bruni's account "absolutely absurd," and several other Fulton board members recall the situation differently.

"John O'Rourke went to hell and back in Fulton," said Rhonda Campolieta, who was one of three on the seven-member Fulton board who voted to keep O'Rourke in 1992. They were outvoted by those who wanted O'Rourke to leave.

"Mr. O'Rourke was very progressive," Campolieta said. "He brought in a lot of new ideas and initiated an awful lot of change at once with much higher expectations than had been set forth prior to his being there. And, you know, organizationally, that creates some havoc. It steps on some toes and upsets people."

In Howard as well, O'Rourke is known for his big ideas. Shortly after arriving in July 2000, he announced a much-praised plan -- begun in March 2002 -- to raise the academic performance of all students. He promised to bring scores up to state standards by 2005. He pledged to eliminate the achievement gap by 2007.

But along the way, he also alienated many teachers who complained about the added work his proposals required and not being consulted in their development, principals who lost their independence, parents who found him too insulated and inaccessible, and some board members who were used to a system that had been in place as long as the previous superintendent: 16 years.

This month, the five-member Howard County school board told O'Rourke that it, too, was refusing his request for contract renewal, naming concerns about management, cooperation and collaboration. O'Rourke responded by suggesting that the school board was blackmailing him into leaving before his contract is up and that members had interfered with a grade-tampering investigation O'Rourke is leading. Board members deny the allegations.

"I really do feel bad for" the Howard board, said Bruni, who is keeping tabs on the situation through Internet news sites. "They're about to embark on a journey that they don't deserve, one we went through with a lot of heartache and hurt."

Other Fulton board members also described a strained relationship with O'Rourke.

Christine Orr, another former Fulton board member during O'Rourke's tenure, said O'Rourke was often impatient with people. During a public meeting, O'Rourke asked a board member whether she got her information from "reading tea leaves," said Orr, who found the remark unacceptable.

And Jean Wise, another Fulton board member, said the recent Howard leadership criticisms she has read -- O'Rourke's not keeping the board well-informed or consulting with members on budgetary matters -- were problems she saw in Fulton.

"I guess he just didn't learn anything," Wise said.

Bruni said O'Rourke could turn vindictive when crossed and targeted her with accusations similar to those he has leveled at the Howard board.

But some people O'Rourke worked with in Pittsford, where he went after his Fulton contract expired, defend him.

"I don't see any of the characteristics in him that they state," said Kim McCluski, who worked with O'Rourke for eight years when he was in Pittsford, where he won the national and the New York state Superintendent of the Year awards in 1997. "I found him willing to listen, easy to work with and incredibly respectful of people."

McCluski, who is lecturing with O'Rourke next month in San Francisco about how to heal strained superintendent-board relationships, said he improved the Pittsford district markedly and fostered strong relationships among staff, the community and the board.

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