Howard school administrators win appeal

School board clears two of grade tampering

May 25, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Board of Education unanimously reversed the demotions of two top administrators accused of grade tampering, announcing yesterday that one reassignment had no factual basis and the other was arbitrary and illogical.

In separate legal opinions written Friday, the board cleared former Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett of charges he abused his power by performing academic favors for the children of Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham, who was also found innocent of any intended misuse of her office.

"I knew all along that I would be cleared of any charges," said Plunkett.

Statham called the board's decision "full vindication, which is what I expected would happen with a fair, objective review of the facts, though it certainly was long in coming."

In December, then-Superintendent John R. O'Rourke launched a $45,000 investigation by a private firm into alleged grade tampering at Centennial High School in Ellicott City by Statham and Plunkett. The allegations were made public through a widely disseminated anonymous letter, purportedly written by a teacher.

The investigation uncovered several abuse-of-power complaints from teachers, leading O'Rourke to reassign Statham to a teaching position and Plunkett to a job as administrator on special assignment in late February. O'Rourke demoted them two days before he resigned at the board's request.

Statham and Plunkett appealed the decisions, and the board found in their favor. After reviewing more than 3,700 pages of testimony, exhibits and hearing-officer recommendations, school board members concluded that O'Rourke's actions were unreasonable and, in Statham's instance, an effort to force her resignation, which O'Rourke's attorney, Leslie Stellman, denied.

O'Rourke "testified under oath that his intention was not to lose her from the system," said Stellman, who chose not to introduce the results of O'Rourke's costly investigation into evidence during the hearings -- instead favoring "live testimony" -- which the board said was frustrating.

"Even to this day, we do not know what's in that report," board Chairman Courtney Watson said, although members did have access to a synopsis of it. They chose not to review it as a finding of fact because "it is misleading, unreliable, and often contradicted by sworn testimony," according to a footnote in one of the decisions.

In exonerating the administrators, the board had to meet a standard set by state law that the former superintendent's actions were "arbitrary and capricious."

The school board tried unsuccessfully to find the author of the anonymous letter -- which was e-mailed to government officials, media and educators -- filing a request for a subpoena to analyze Internet records, which was denied last week.

Stellman said O'Rourke stands by his decision. But the school board questions why the former superintendent did not fire the administrators if he believed, as he testified, that there was "a breach of the academic integrity" of the school system.

Interim Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said he plans to reinstate Plunkett and Statham before the end of the week, though not necessarily to the positions they held before.

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