2 school officials' transfer delayed

Cousin nullifies deadline imposed by O'Rourke

Action by board is awaited

Statham, Plunkett deny improper grade change

March 28, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Howard County's interim superintendent has postponed the disciplinary reassignment of two top school system officials accused of improperly changing a student's transcript, nullifying the April 1 transfer deadline imposed by his predecessor.

Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham and Assistant Superintendent Roger Plunkett have been on paid leave since Feb. 26, when former Superintendent John R. O'Rourke demoted them after an investigation into allegations that staff members at Centennial High School were pressured to change academic records for Statham's daughter, who was a student at the Ellicott City school.

O'Rourke assigned Statham to a teaching position, but did not say what kind or where. Plunkett was to be transferred to a job as an "administrator on special assignment," which basically means he works on projects at the discretion of the superintendent. O'Rourke gave them until April 1 to assume their new posts.

But last week, interim Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin - who took after O'Rourke he stepped down Feb. 29 - said he will "wait for the results" before shuffling anyone, in case the school board overturns O'Rourke's decree.

Statham has called O'Rourke's decision "baseless and vindictive" and forcefully denied any wrongdoing.

"I never used my position to benefit my children or to change their grades," she said last month after O'Rourke held a news conference to announce the transfers.

Plunkett, too, has proclaimed his innocence, saying, "Transcript integrity is critical," and maintaining he has "honored and respected" school system policies. Plunkett did not return a phone call seeking comment for this article, and his attorney, Gerald Richman, declined to speak on the matter.

This month, board members said they had put the two educators' appeals on a fast track, and were hoping to conclude them before the April 1 deadline, but the announcement was overly optimistic.

"To have been able to accomplish the completion of both hearings and a presentation and discussion before the board [by then] would have been extraordinary, and it isn't going to happen," said Statham's attorney, George Nilson. "I'm pleased to hear that Dr. Cousin has put things on hold until the process is finished."

Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, estimates that the hearing results and recommendations will come before the board this month or in early May. Cousin said Plunkett's hearing is scheduled to begin tomorrow, and Nilson said Statham's hearing is well under way.

Meanwhile, Statham's and Plunkett's duties have been assumed by others, including Cousin, who finds himself four weeks into the job wearing the hats of superintendent, chief financial officer and deputy superintendent - a position he held in Howard until last summer when he retired after 16 years in the school system. The Howard school board enticed him to return as O'Rourke's temporary replacement.

"There are a lot of gaps that need to be filled," Cousin said. "We're trying to fill them as best we can. They were important leadership positions within the school system."

Community reaction to the reassignments has been mixed, with some rallying behind the two officials and demanding their names be cleared, and others wondering what message is being sent by demotions that don't seem particularly punitive or appropriate.

O'Rourke never said whether Plunkett or Statham did anything wrong, claiming that judgment was privileged information governed by personnel privacy laws. But many have surmised, including teachers union President Joe Staub, that O'Rourke's actions imply guilt.

But Statham has said the only thing implicit in O'Rourke's actions - which came after a $40,000 investigation into the allegations was concluded - was spite.

"There are no legitimate grounds for such an action, which, consequently, calls into question his underlying motives and true intent," she said last month, suggesting O'Rourke was resentful about his contract not being renewed and was taking his frustration out on her.

Nilson said he is confident the board will clear Statham and reinstate her as deputy superintendent.

"I truly don't believe that she's going to ever have to consider that prospect [of taking a teaching role]," he said. "I just don't think that's going to happen."

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