Schools chief reassigns 2 after inquiry

His deputy, Statham, is demoted to teacher

Grade-change allegations

O'Rourke assistant, Plunkett, is transferred

Howard County

February 27, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

In the latest blow to Howard County's highly rated school system, its No. 2 official was demoted yesterday, based on the results of an investigation into alleged grade tampering at an Ellicott City high school on behalf of her daughter.

The reassignment was one of the final decisions made by Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, who is stepping down Sunday after the school board refused to renew his contract.

Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham was relieved of her duties yesterday morning and reassigned to a teaching position that is yet to be determined. Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett, who was accused of assisting her in strong-arming transcript changes at Centennial High School, has been reassigned as an administrator in charge of working with struggling county schools to improve performance.

"After assessing the results of the investigation, I have determined it is not in the best interests of the school system for [them] to remain in their current positions," said O'Rourke, who refused to disclose the findings because of employee confidentiality laws.

O'Rourke launched the $40,000 investigation in December based on allegations that Statham used her position to alter her daughter's transcript at Centennial with Plunkett's help.

"I unequivocally reject Mr. O'Rourke's baseless and vindictive reassignment," said Statham, who is appealing the decision to the Board of Education. "There are no legitimate grounds for such an action, which, consequently, call into question his underlying motives and true intent."

Plunkett will also appeal the decision, said his attorney, Gerald Richman. "It's already been dictated, and it's being sent out," Richman said.

In a statement, Plunkett - who was promoted to O'Rourke's staff in 2001 after garnering praise as principal at Wilde Lake High School - said "grade and transcript integrity is critical, and I have honored and respected the policies of the Howard County Public School System in this regard."

Both administrators, as well as the school board, were limited in speaking beyond general statements because of the pending appeals.

"The board, like the public, does not have the facts and will not have the facts" until the accused appeal, a board statement said.

Last month, O'Rourke announced the results of a separate investigation that confirmed five improper grade changes to an athlete's transcript at Columbia's Oakland Mills High School. The school's athletic director, Ken Hovet - who was also a history teacher and football coach - was placed on administrative leave with pay in November. Last month, the pay was revoked.

"Obviously, we don't know the results of the investigation, but clearly there were some serious violations of county policy involved," said Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association. "My biggest concern is the different treatment given to a teacher at Oakland Mills High School."

Staub said there is no immediate financial penalty for Statham or Plunkett, who will retain their salaries until the end of the fiscal year, June 30 - $159,000 and $124,373, respectively. In July, their salaries will be adjusted to their new positions. Teachers in the county make $27,406 to $75,884, depending on certification and experience.

O'Rourke is being replaced Monday after taking a buyout offer from the school board, which declined to renew his contract. Statham suggested yesterday that O'Rourke was taking his frustration out on her.

"Mr. O'Rourke is a superintendent without a school system, unable to separate his personal bitterness from and disappointment from his professional decision-making responsibilities," said Statham, who has not been allowed to defend herself during the investigation because of O'Rourke's gag order.

"I find his actions and behaviors toward me during his contract renewal deliberations and this investigation shameful, and I will no longer remain silent." Although Statham saved the specifics for her appeal, she said she has never used her position to benefit her two children or change their grades, although she has - like any parent - been an advocate on their behalf.

She has since pulled her children from Howard schools for their protection after the allegations became public, said her attorney, George Nilson.

Statham came to Howard, where she has lived for 15 years, in 2001 from a position in Montgomery County. O'Rourke promoted her twice, and the community has praised her work on the Comprehensive Plan for Accelerated School Improvement, which aims to raise the achievement of every child.

She graduated from an elite superintendent training school, and last year some said she would be a good replacement for O'Rourke, whose close-to-the-vest ways have been criticized.

The demotions caused a reorganization of top-level staff in the system. Michael Martirano and Dan Michaels, directors of school administration, will assume Plunkett's duties. And five positions that previously reported to Statham will report to the superintendent, who as of Monday is Sydney L. Cousin, who held Statham's position until retiring last year. He will act as interim superintendent.

O'Rourke said the investigation is over and that no further action would be taken. But the school board could overturn the decision on appeal.

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