O'Rourke's photo could grace wall of school board

Discussion: Panel is considering including the ousted superintendent on a memorial wall to preserve historical accuracy.

April 08, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

A picture of former Howard County Superintendent John R. O'Rourke - whose fallout with the school board led to his abrupt departure last year - could hang in the Board of Education building with the portraits of the previous three superintendents.

The school board - expected to take up the issue at its Thursday board meeting - is considering this memorial to preserve historical accuracy of the school system.

"Someday, [current Superintendent] Sydney Cousin's portrait will be up there and any following superintendents," said Patricia S. Gordon, the school board's vice chairman who proposed the commission of O'Rourke's portrait. "We don't want that gap, and we want that historical continuity."

Taxpayers would foot the bill for a $1,500 framed portrait, according to one estimate, that would take O'Rourke's photograph and transpose it onto a canvas - a stark contrast to the $8,500 painted portrait of O'Rourke's predecessor, Michael E. Hickey, who retired in 2000 after 16 years.

The cost for the nearly life-size portrait of Hickey had caused a bit of a stir among some residents.

"There was a lot of discussion about the portrait of the former superintendent," Gordon said. "We want to do it at a reasonable price."

Or, as board chairman Courtney Watson said, there could be generous community members who would be interested in donating money for the portrait.

"I think it's important to maintain historical accuracy," Watson said. "How we do that in terms of paying for it - whether a student paints a picture or it's donated or the school system's money is spent - that's up to debate."

At the same time, Watson said, "John O'Rourke made a lot of contributions to the school system, and we want to recognize him for that."

O'Rourke came to Howard County in 2000 as a highly regarded administrator who brought big ideas, including a philosophy which asked residents to consider three questions: What do we want for our children? How will we provide it? And how will we know we've done it well?

O'Rourke launched an accountability program to help elementary school children lagging behind in reading and math and implemented a plan to eliminate the achievement gap among low-income and minority students by 2007.

"Aside from other considerations, he did have some really good ideas," Gordon said.

But in January last year, after two grade-tampering controversies, the school board decided not to renew his contract for a second four-year term, largely noting his leadership style and lack of collaboration. After a brief stalemate, O'Rourke accepted a buyout totaling more than $100,000 and left in February last year.

O'Rourke, now interim superintendent of Shenendehowa Central School District in upstate New York, said through his spokeswoman yesterday that he feels "positive" about his portrait under consideration by the school board.

"The students and teachers of Howard County have provided me with some of the most gratifying experiences of my career," O'Rourke said.

Portraits of departing or retiring county and school officials are typical. Retired County Executive Charles I. Ecker's portrait, a photograph touched up by an artist, cost $3,442 in fiscal 1995.

"That is a legitimate decision for the board to make, whether you particularly liked John O'Rourke or not," said Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association. "My relationship with John O'Rourke was not the best, but I was always respectful of his position in the school system. ... I don't know if putting a portrait of John O'Rourke honors John O'Rourke, but it recognizes him for serving as superintendent."

The wall adjacent to the Board of Education meeting room represents the 51-year tenure of three previous superintendents. Hickey's colorful portrait - showing him sitting partly on his desk - hangs next to the more plain pictures of his two predecessors, M. Thomas Goedeke (1968-1984) and John Edward Yingling (1949-1968).

Allen Dyer, frequent critic of the school board, said the board should stop the "deification of superintendents."

"Is this a proper use of public education funds? I submit that it isn't. That certainly should be discussed," he said.

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