O'Rourke will take buyout in Howard Co.

School head leaves Feb. 29

board hires interim chief

February 20, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Howard County Superintendent John R. O'Rourke will accept a buyout totaling more than $100,000 and step down at the end of the month, ending an awkward stalemate in the state's top-ranked district.

The school board has hired Sydney L. Cousin, who was the No. 2 person in Howard education until his retirement eight months ago, to replace O'Rourke in a school system hit with grade-changing scandals and other disputes in recent months.

Last month, the school board voted not to renew O'Rourke's contract and asked him to leave before it expires June 30, which he has until now refused to do.

Many in the community lauded the decision, but others have worried it would mean an end to the ambitious goals O'Rourke, 59, set during his tenure. Placing Cousin in the position should quell many of those fears, said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat.

"I think it was a good move, almost a calming effect," he said.

Cousin was given a four-month contract as interim superintendent beginning March 1, but might be a candidate for the permanent job, school representatives said yesterday.

Public officials and parents said they were confident that Cousin, a respected administrator with 16 years of experience in county schools, could restore order to the school system, marred recently by the grade-changing scandals, key personnel departures and misreported instructional hours.

Howard needs some "healing," which Cousin can do, said June Cofield, vice president of the county's PTA Council.

"Sydney brings continuity and familiarity with him," she said. "People know him, they recognize him, they respect him. He doesn't have to build relationships, they're already there."

Cousin said his top priorities will be continuing the county's high achievement and developing a reasonable budget.

"There have been a lot of less-than-positive things occurring in the school system, and those things need to be turned around," said Cousin, 58.

School board head Courtney Watson said members tapped Cousin for the interim position because he knows the staff and he knows the system.

"There was no better choice in our minds," said Watson, who in June called Cousin the school system's "go-to guy to get answers about what's going on and why."

Cousin began his education career in 1967 as a history teacher at Lombard Junior High School in Baltimore. He spent 14 years developing long-range facilities plans for the Baltimore school system. He started in Howard in 1987 as director of school construction and planning, and was promoted to associate superintendent in charge of finance and operations in 1989. Two years later, he became deputy superintendent and chief operating officer, second only to O'Rourke.

Cousin has overseen the school system's day-to-day operations, set planning goals and strategies, helped reorganize the central office, served as a liaison to elected officials and developed a prototype building system that other regions imitate.

Under his watch, 24 schools opened, enrollment grew from 27,000 to 47,000, diversity increased and budget needs tripled.

"I understand the school system and the culture," Cousin said. "I know the people."

After retiring last year, Cousin took a position as associate superintendent and chief of facilities management in the Washington, D.C., schools. He is breaking his contract there to return to Howard.

"I think this is an opportunity for me," said Cousin, an Ellicott City resident. "This is a chance to come back home in a leadership position."

The announcement, which was delivered to school system staff via e-mail late Wednesday night, came as a surprise to many because O'Rourke had said he would not leave his post until his contract ended, despite pressure to do so.

Judith S. Bresler, the school board's attorney, said O'Rourke gave no reason for the change of heart, and O'Rourke could not be reached for comment yesterday. He was in San Francisco lecturing superintendents and school boards on good relationships, even though his rapport with the Howard board was strained.

"I'm glad it's been resolved," said County Executive James N. Robey. "That was important for the school system and public confidence in the school system."

Watson said Cousin could be a contender for the permanent replacement position, but that members had to continue with their search to make an informed decision.

"The contract that we have with him is for four months," Watson said. "When we get to the end of that contract, we'll have much more information about whether we're in a position to name a four-year superintendent or not."

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

Sydney L. Cousin

Age: 58

History teacher, Lombard Junior High School, 1967-1970

Capital program planner, Baltimore City Department of Planning, 1972-1973

Long-range facilities planner, Baltimore City public schools, 1973-1987

Director of school construction and planning, associate superintendent and deputy superintendent, Howard County public schools, 1987-2003

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