School officials win on appeal

Board of Education clears two of grade tampering

Ruling called `full vindication'

Demotions overturned for both administrators

Howard County

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 the administrators 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," said Courtney Watson, the board chairman, 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."


In Plunkett's case, there were three issues alleging he "intentionally misused the prestige of his office to benefit" Statham:

That he allowed Statham to place her older child on a bus with her younger child.

That he attended and arranged parent-teacher conferences for Statham.

That he asked a guidance counselor at Centennial High School to contact Statham about a withdrawal on her daughter's transcript - a request that resulted in the counselor asking to have the mark removed before speaking with Statham.

In each instance, the board found that Plunkett was acting properly in his capacity as an assistant superintendent in charge of administration.

The same issues were addressed in Statham's case, along with two others. And in most instances, the board concluded that Statham's requests were the actions of any parent. The school board did concede that one instance - in which Statham suggested a teacher's wrongdoing could end up as part of his employee file - could be construed as threatening, though they did not believe that was the intention.

"Anybody - even outside of reading that [board] report - knows I'm not a threatening person," said Statham, who has maintained that O'Rourke obscured the line between her roles as a parent and an educator, which she said she has always been careful to preserve.

"This has come at a high cost to my entire family," Statham said. She said that as the controversy grew she had to pull her children from Howard schools to ensure a nurturing environment for them. She also said that her parents left their home, moving closer to their daughter to support her.

"Knowing how devastating this has been and how much time I've had to devote to meeting with lawyers and preparing materials has just been overwhelming," she said. "And the fact that these false allegations got so much press, that in and of itself is damaging to one's career."

The school board tried unsuccessfully to find the author of the anonymous letter - which was sent by e-mail 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.

Statham has been on administrative leave since her reassignment, and Plunkett has been working on a special assignment since mid-April.

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