A costly lesson

March 01, 2004

THE HOUSE of cards has finally collapsed: On his way out the door, embattled Howard County schools chief John R. O'Rourke demoted his handpicked deputy superintendent and an assistant superintendent, for their alleged roles in a transcript-changing scandal.

Long after complaints about management style and strained school board relations are forgotten, this scandal will endure as the symbol of what went wrong -- of the arrogance of his administration.

Too much was risked: the reputation of vaunted Centennial High School, the trust of families whose high expectations buoy the district's achievements, the principle of fair competition on which hard-working students must be able to rely. It took too long, involved too much secrecy and cost too much -- $40,000 for a private eye's skills, a few careers, and the county's faith in its schools administration -- to determine facts that still have not been made public.

A grade was allegedly changed to benefit the deputy superintendent's child, and the probe required interviews with no fewer than 40 people to establish how it happened, whether improper influence was asserted, whether district policies were followed? Thoroughness is one thing, but as this dragged on, public faith in the administration eroded.

If grade tampering has been found, the demotions are proper. But now, coming on the eve of Mr. O'Rourke's own forced departure, the disciplinary decision has fueled charges that the process and the outcome have been biased by sour grapes. He leaves it to the school board to mop up an appeal and ensure that justice has been done. Meanwhile, that board is still struggling to address perceptions that his leadership style shut out alternate views, chased away well-regarded employees and strained staff race relations. All this just days before school board elections.

It's an understatement to say Mr. O'Rourke overstayed his welcome.

Perhaps now the stability and credibility so badly bruised can be healed. Luring back retired longtime administrator Sydney L. Cousin to hold the district as interim chief was a good start. But the job won't be finished until Howard countians stop coasting on a long and deserved record of academic excellence, and insist the district uphold as well the highest standards of public accountability -- not platitudes and educational jargon, but real management integrity.

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