School systems look to insiders for continuity in leadership

Howard Co. follows trend with new superintendent

February 21, 2004|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

When the Howard County school system picked a longtime insider this week to temporarily replace deposed Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, it followed a well-worn path toward stability and continuity after a period of roiling change.

In hiring Sydney L. Cousin, a former deputy superintendent in the system, Howard took a path similar to that of Baltimore County, which in 1995 hired Anthony G. Marchione, a 40-year veteran of county schools, to replace embattled Superintendent Stuart Berger. And Carroll County named Charles I. Ecker, a county native, to take over for William H. Hyde, who quit in August 2000 with two years left in his contract.

Nationwide last year, nearly a fifth of the 14,000 superintendent jobs went to insiders. Experts say that is an indication that those school boards are generally happy with the direction in which their districts are headed and want a steady hand to stay the course.

"When things are going well within a school district, and the board is conservative, usually there's a better possibility of hiring an insider," said Thomas Glass, an education professor at the University of Memphis.

After weeks of turmoil, the Howard County school board announced Thursday that O'Rourke had accepted a buyout of more than $100,000 and would step down at the end of the month. Cousin, who worked for 16 years in county schools before a short stint in Washington, was named interim chief.

O'Rourke arrived in Howard County in 2000 from Rochester, N.Y., where he was named national superintendent of the year. His plans to raise test scores and eliminate a minority achievement gap won wide support.

Last year, Howard County's board assured O'Rourke it would renew his contract. But by last month, the good will had given way to board member complaints about poor communication, staff turnover and the handling of investigations into grade tampering.

Cousin, who was the No. 2 person in the Howard school system when he retired in June, was given a four-month contract. Officials have said he could be a candidate for the permanent job.

"We need to bring in someone who knows the school system and knows all the players -- and stabilize a rocky environment," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

While the choice of Cousin reflects the tendency to turn to a familiar figure after a period of turbulence, experts say it also points to a second trend in the hiring of superintendents: School boards often swing between insiders and outsiders.

"They usually alternate," said Bruce S. Cooper, an education professor at Fordham University.

An outsider initially enjoys wide leeway to launch new initiatives and shake up staff. But experts say the honeymoon usually ends after three years, when grievances accumulate and school boards start to nit-pick.

Berger came to Baltimore County from the Wichita, Kan., school system in 1992. But in his three years on the job, he often fought parents and elected officials over academic reforms and fiscal disputes. When his contract was bought out, the school system opted for the familiar in Marchione.

"Since Stuart Berger came from the outside and was so controversial, my preference -- all things being equal -- was to choose somebody who the system knew and the system was comfortable with," said Sanford V. Teplitzky, then a board member.

Hyde's tenure in Carroll County was marked by lawsuits and a dispute over administrative pay raises. Ecker, who left education for government work and served two terms as Howard County executive, was brought in to restore stability. He now has the permanent job.

While school boards tend to think outsiders usher in change while insiders offer stability, experts say that's not always the case. With their knowledge of school systems and key players, insiders can be effective reformers, too.

"An insider who is highly regarded can have a credibility to begin to make changes as well," said Edward Pajak, interim director of the Johns Hopkins University's graduate division of education.

Whatever the case, Richard Goodman, project director of the New England School Development Council, says student achievement depends on more than the credentials of the superintendent.

"The school districts that have high achievement in students and work the best have board members that tend to serve two or three terms and superintendents who stay 10 to 15 years, and they keep to their respective roles," he said.

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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