Reinstated and relieved

Coach: Former Oakland Mills High teacher reflects on his ordeal.

Columbia

August 06, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

For Ken Hovet, life now is a mixture of relief, anger and anxiety.

The 43-year-old former Oakland Mills High School athletic director and football coach got his teaching job and back pay restored by the Howard County school board this week. Today, he is due in Circuit Court, seeking $113,000 in legal fees and damages from his fight to obtain access to documents he needed to prepare a defense against charges that he should be fired in a grade-changing scandal.

But important as all that is, there is something more vital to Hovet, a plain-spoken father of three who agreed to be interviewed yesterday in the downtown Washington law office of Thomas R. Bundy III, a 1991 Oakland Mills High graduate who represented Hovet.

"For me, it feels great to be reinstated and vindicated," Hovet said. "Who do I see about getting my reputation back?"

Hovet was suspended with pay in November after one of his football players was found to be academically ineligible because of improperly changed grades. The 21-year coach and history teacher, an Oakland Mills graduate, went to suspension-without-pay status in January on orders from then-Howard school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, who later recommended that Hovet be fired.

O'Rourke took a buyout in February after the school board refused to renew his contract. The board decided Tuesday that Hovet's penalty was unjustified by the evidence.

"It's unfortunate that it raised to the level it did, for him and the school," Howard school Superintendent Sidney L. Cousin said yesterday.

Hovet believes he was made a scapegoat for what the board described as a systemic failure involving multiple levels of authority.

"I do not feel I did anything wrong in this situation," Hovet said.

He said he would never put ineligible players on a field to win an athletic event.

"That's just simply against everything I believe in and have taught as a coach," he said.

Looking back, he said, he would not involve himself in school administrative matters again without a clear, written record of what transpired.

For now, Hovet said, he is focused on recovering his image and repairing his finances.

Courtney Watson, chairman of the Howard school board, said yesterday that Hovet is due some money.

She said the board also agreed "that it was wrong for the school system to withhold many of the documents from him. He deserves fair compensation for having to go to court to obtain those," for his defense, though she said a judge is the best person to determine the amount.

Hovet said he is the sole supporter of his family of five and was quickly running out of money obtained from refinancing his house.

The tension was getting worse by the day, despite support from his wife, family, friends and colleagues.

"It's a nightmare," he said. "The kids [4, 7 and 10] are looking at you and thinking, `Why are you home?' "

He applied for teaching jobs in other counties, he said, but was told he would have to resign his Howard job first. He was not willing to do that, he said, because it would mean giving up.

Hovet has a law degree, but he said, "You can't contact law firms after 13 years [teaching] and expect to get a job.

"If this went into the next school year, I was going to have to go in another direction," he said.

Instead, he can teach - and perhaps coach - at a county school and has chosen to look beyond Oakland Mills. He has an interview Monday with a principal.

"It felt like a giant sigh on Tuesday. I finally got to exhale," he said.

Hovet said the ordeal stemmed from the way O'Rourke ran the school system.

"The former superintendent created a climate of fear among employees in which people were looking to cover their backs," Hovet said. "He ruled by fear."

O'Rourke did not return phone calls yesterday.

In January, the former coach defended himself by saying that "any action I took was done at the direction of Oakland Mills administrators."

After that statement, Oakland Mills Principal Marshall Peterson defended himself, denying he had ever asked anyone to do anything improper.

Yesterday, Hovet referred to those tensions: "Now he supports what happened [reinstatement] to me." "I appreciate his support, but it would have been nice to have back in November."

Meanwhile, Hovet would like one day to be back at Oakland Mills, whose black and orange colors were chosen over 30 years ago by his mother, then a county school administrator, but now is not the time, he said.

"Given the current administration at Oakland Mills High School, and the fact that a number of coaches who supported me are not coaching because of the way I was treated, it would not be in my best interest or in the school's best interest for me to return there," Hovet said.

"My heart is always with Oakland Mills," he said. "I went to Oakland Mills, and I've been a coach at Oakland Mills for 21 years, so that's not a decision I would make lightly."

Now, though, he is ready to move forward, and looks forward to again teaching and coaching.

"It's in my blood," Hovet said. "Very rarely in life do you get the opportunity to do things that you truly enjoy, and that help people out, and that you're good at."

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