Md. denies contract extension for chief of county schools

Grasmick tells board it must conduct a search before she grants request

Howard County

April 02, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has denied a contract extension for Howard County's interim superintendent, telling the Board of Education it has to at least try to find a permanent replacement before she will sanction the unusual request.

"Somewhere around June 1, she'll make that determination," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education. "In the meantime, the local board, under statute, is supposed to launch a search for a new superintendent."

But board members, who have selected a search firm and expect to sign a contract with the company April 15, said two months is too little time to find a quality candidate.

"We are not going to rush the process despite what anyone says," Courtney Watson, the board chairman, said yesterday. "We're going to take this search very seriously, and we believe we're doing everything we can to act responsibly and to fill the position when it can be filled."

The board hired Sydney L. Cousin, a former Howard administrator, for a four-month stint as superintendent after John R. O'Rourke announced he was stepping down early under pressure.

The original plan was to keep Cousin until July - when O'Rourke's contract was set to expire - then announce a replacement after conducting a national search.

Consultants, however, advised the board that the timeline was too tight. So, board members asked for state permission to keep Cousin a year longer. They hoped he would add stability to the school system.

State law requires that school superintendents be appointed for four years.

The statute allows for interim appointments only through the start of the next contract cycle - July 1 in this case - if superintendents vacate their posts, as O'Rourke did in February.

The county cannot ask for another interim appointment, in addition to Cousin's first four months, until it makes an effort to fill the position through a search and fails, Reinhard said.

Neither the board, nor Cousin has a back-up plan. If not approved in June, Cousin quipped that he will "be doing a lot of gardening here in the summer."

Watson said she does not anticipate any change in the board's plan, and members will carry on as intended, conducting a thorough search that could take a year.

"Essentially, we believe that we will continue with the same process that we had planned, and we will resubmit the approval request at the end of May," she said.

Cousin took office March 1 to the relief of many who were worried about the school system's future after several scandals, including allegations of improper grade changing by top school system officials and bitter exchanges between O'Rourke and the school board.

"The constant focus on different personnel issues in the past four to five months has been unsettling, especially for the central administration," said Robert Glascock, an assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum. "With [Cousin's] presence, the atmosphere is now much more calming and reassuring."

The board chose Cousin largely because of his familiarity. He spent 16 years in Howard before his retirement last summer - most recently as deputy superintendent - and was well regarded while in office.

Grasmick has "said to me a couple of times that she really wants stability in Howard County. The system has had a somewhat unstable period, and she wants that to end," said Reinhard, who added that Grasmick is likely to approve the extension request if it comes back to her next month.

"But the fact of the matter is that there may be a candidate out there," he said.

"And the best thing for the State Department of Education is not to predetermine what's going to happen by extending the contract early."

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