School board unanimously upholds dismissal of ex-chief business officer

But panel members chide O'Rourke for the way Venter firing was handled

December 15, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Board of Education has upheld the firing of the school system's former chief business officer, but it chides former Superintendent John R. O'Rourke for his handling of Bruce M. Venter's dismissal, according to its decision obtained by The Sun.

"We cannot conclude that the Superintendent's decision was without rationale or in disregard of the facts and circumstances so as to have been arbitrary, unreasonable or illegal," the five-member board wrote in its unanimous decision. "We do not, however, condone the unacceptable manner in which the termination was carried out by the former Superintendent."

Calling it a "mysterious decision," Venter said yesterday that the fight to clear his name is not over. He is discussing options with his Ellicott City lawyer, Allen Dyer, who said the case likely will end up in court.

In September last year - a month shy of Venter's two-year anniversary in Howard County - O'Rourke fired the business officer, accusing him of not informing O'Rourke, senior school administrators and the school board that the construction of Marriotts Ridge High School was off schedule.

Venter said he had pointed that out several times and claimed his dismissal was arbitrary and did not comply with state regulations governing the firing of educational professionals. Venter, who now works for the Isle of Wight school system in Virginia, appealed to the school board and sought reinstatement, back pay and benefits.

The school board heard Venter's appeal Nov. 29 behind closed doors after wrangling over whether the proceedings should be open to the public. The board reached a decision Dec. 1 but released it to attorneys Monday.

(Sandra H. French and James P. O'Donnell voted on the case before they left the board Dec. 6.)

In making its decision, the school board adopted a hearing examiner's conclusions that Venter failed to provide evidence that he informed O'Rourke and the school board about issues stemming from the construction of Marriotts Ridge, and that Venter does not fall under a Maryland law that governs certificated education professionals, such as teachers and administrators.

Venter holds administration certifications in Virginia and New York.

"What we found was that there was evidence presented which showed that not all of the problems associated with the 12th high school were passed onto the board and the superintendent," Courtney Watson, the board chairman, said yesterday. "What we're saying is that the superintendent was within legal authority to do what [he did]. It doesn't mean the board would have done what he did."

In fact, the board said it would have taken a "different action" in response to Venter's actions and acknowledges Venter's contribution to the Howard school system and his "satisfactory performance evaluations," according to its decision.

As a result, the board asked Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin to review whether Venter received all benefits afforded to an employee who leaves the school system.

Cousin agreed to the request, and the school system's accounting office is looking into it immediately, said Leslie Stellman, an attorney who represented the superintendent's office in Venter's appeal.

While the decision "reflects the board's genuine concerns involving the dynamics of Venter's termination, the fundamental decision made by Mr. O'Rourke was supported by the evidence," Stellman said.

Venter disagreed, saying the case was not about issues stemming from the construction of Marriotts Ridge, which is scheduled to open in August.

"It was about vendettas," said Venter, who had accused O'Rourke of being a bully, which O'Rourke has denied. "I'm not going away. I will be exploring every avenue to get a 100 percent clearance here."

The decision on Venter's appeal marks the resolution of the last of several high-profile controversies under O'Rourke, including allegations of grade-tampering at Centennial and Oakland Mills high schools.

In both cases, the school board reversed personnel decisions made by O'Rourke.

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