School board asks for power to fire superintendents

Howard panel asks state for option for all systems

September 19, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Board of Education wants school boards across the state to have more power when it comes to hiring and firing superintendents.

Howard school board members are asking for the authority to fire a superintendent in the final year of a contract after being frustrated this year in their attempt to get rid of former Superintendent John R. O'Rourke. The board's options were limited when it tried to get O'Rourke to leave with five months remaining on his contract, but he refused to budge.

Under the state law, only the state superintendent can remove a local superintendent during the length of his or her four-year contract, and only if the official engages in "immorality, misconduct in office, insubordination, incompetency or willful neglect of duty." None of those reasons applied to O'Rourke.

As a result, O'Rourke and the school board were locked in a monthlong stalemate until the superintendent accepted a buyout worth more than $100,000 and stepped down.

The Howard school board approved a proposal this month to give local boards the authority to terminate a superintendent's contract and appoint an interim schools chief only after the board decides not to renew his or her contract during the fourth year. The proposal was drafted as a statewide bill and forwarded to the Howard County General Assembly delegation.

The proposal also calls for the county board to provide the ousted superintendent the remaining salary and benefits he or she is entitled to under the contract.

Although board members don't expect a similar scenario again in Howard, they want to provide extra leeway for other school boards.

"I think this would be very rarely used, but it does provide a mediation point that did not exist in our circumstance," said Howard board member Sandra H. French.

Said Howard board Chairman Courtney Watson: "While most local boards believe the board should have absolute power to hire and fire a superintendent at any point, we're not even engaging that question. We want at minimum limited power to prevent the situation that happened in Howard County."

In most cases, if school boards want their superintendents to leave before the end of four-year contracts, they negotiate a resignation and a buyout.

But, "in some cases -- what we saw in Howard County -- that doesn't always work out," Watson said. "The problem we're trying to solve is we're trying not to let a school board be held hostage by the superintendent when the board decides not to renew the contract."

The issue of a local school board's authority over its only direct employee has been a long-standing one.

In 2002, the Prince George's County school board tried to fire then-Superintendent Iris T. Metts, but the state Board of Education overturned the decision and declared that local school boards do not have the authority to fire their superintendents.

Now, under separate state statutes, school boards in Prince George's County and Baltimore are the only ones in Maryland with the right to fire their schools chiefs.

The state's authority over local superintendents has been the law for more than eight decades, partly to protect superintendents from the politics of local school boards.

Maryland is rare in that case, said Carl W. Smith, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

The group has generally advocated "what is done in the other 49 states -- [that] the school board is a legally constituted body that votes and selects the superintendent, determines his or her tenure under whatever legislative requirement, including dismissal and naming of interim superintendents," Smith said.

The association's legislative committee will review Howard's proposal and take a position on it this year, Smith said.

The Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland has yet to see the proposal and it, too, will likely take a stance on it, said Executive Director James J. Lupis Jr.

A year after the state board's decision on Metts' appeal, state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, the Howard County Republican who died Sept. 11, introduced a bill that would have given school boards the authority to fire their school chiefs. It never emerged from a Senate committee.

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