The superintendent of Howard County's school system, often regarded as one of the best in the nation, said Monday that he will leave his post when his contract expires next year because of health problems.
Sydney Cousin said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that not only has he been receiving treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but he was diagnosed with an undetermined neurological condition, which forced him recently to take a nearly four-month medical leave of absence.
"My health and condition will determine whether I stay long-term, and long-term for me is June 2012, when my contract is up. I can say categorically that I will not go beyond that," Cousin said during an interview in his Board of Education office in Ellicott City.
Cousin, 65, revealed that while he was vacationing with his wife in Rio de Janeiro in December, waiting for an elevator at Sugarloaf Mountain, he suddenly passed out. He was flown home and ultimately diagnosed with a neurological condition that has affected his memory and required him to receive physical, occupational and speech therapy.
Cousin, who was found to have non-Hodgkin's lymphoma last August, said he was aware that most people assumed he was out because of the cancer. But he said, "It was because my memory was gone. I was in therapy."
Cousin's lymphoma diagnosis was disclosed during his medical leave, initially taken in January. He said the cancer, though not in remission, has improved with chemotherapy, and he is now being treated for the lymphoma every eight weeks, down from twice a month.
The superintendent has worked for the school system since 1987 and was named to the top job in 2004.
"I am very sorry to see another Maryland superintendent stepping down this year. We are losing a lot of history and institutional knowledge," said Andrés Alonso, CEO of Baltimore's schools. "Dr. Cousin was very helpful when I arrived in providing me with his perspective on Baltimore and what needed to be done."
Other superintendents who have announced they are retiring this year include state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Montgomery County's Jerry Weast; both will leave their jobs in June.
Cousin was praised Monday by former school board members, county officials and colleagues as well as parents.
"He is an icon within the history of our school system," said Howard County Council member Courtney Watson, a former school board chairwoman. She added that she was aware of Cousin's decision not to seek to renew his contract, and said, "He will be very, very difficult to replace, but I have confidence that he will assist in the successful transition to a new superintendent."
Caroline Bodziak, a member of the PTAs at St. John's Lane Elementary School and Patapsco Middle School, said Cousin's decision was not unexpected. "He will leave behind a legacy of a strong educational system in Howard County," she said.
According to the Howard County website, Cousin oversees a system of 49,748 students in 73 schools, 7,852 employees and an operating budget of $656.7 million. He earns $265,000 annually.
Cousin said he has recovered sufficiently from the neurological condition, which is primarily why he has returned to work three days a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He said he has not suffered another episode.
"The reason why I'm back now is to test whether I have the endurance and the ability to be in my job and to be high-functioning in my position," he said.
"I've come a long way in the last few months," said Cousin, adding that doctors have not determined what triggered the disorder and that he doesn't remember the episode.
According to the Howard County schools website, Cousin began his career in Howard as the director of school construction and planning in 1987. He later was promoted to associate superintendent of finance and operations and then deputy superintendent/chief operating officer. He briefly left the school system to work as an associate superintendent in Washington before returning to Howard in March 2004 as interim superintendent.
The Board of Education lured him back as the school system was dealing with grade-changing scandals at Oakland Mills and Centennial high schools, rape allegations at Mount Hebron High and a messy split between then-Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and the school board. Cousin received a four-year contract in July that year and was reappointed in 2008 to another four years.
During his tenure in 2007, Forbes magazine ranked the school system seventh in the nation for providing the best public education for the price.
The county's annual Bridge to Excellence Report on student achievement last year says that 99.8 percent of the 3,903 students in the Class of 2010 met the High School Assessment requirement for graduation. It says that all of its student groups except special education met Maryland School Assessment standards for reading and math last year.
"Dr. Cousin has been instrumental in creating a culture of continuous improvement that has guided the staff as they work to ensure that all of our children grow, develop and learn to their potentials," said County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, a former school board member.
Added County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, "I believe Dr. Cousin has fostered a stable, nurturing environment where those who care about education can have confidence in our system. Dr. Cousin will be missed and has done an admirable job empowering all of his team to ensure a smooth transition."
Initially, Cousin was slated to return from his leave March 1, but later it was announced that he would return after spring break, which he did. He said he returned later than scheduled because of both ailments.
"I'm back part time now [because] I get tired," he said. "I have to thank my wife [Marion] for being my nurse and my angel, because if someone had seen me two months ago … and this is what my oncologist told me, 'You look [awful].'
"I lost 35 pounds, and I'm in the process of gaining that back now," Cousin added. "People say I look good, but that's because they hadn't seen me when I was in the doldrums."
Asked whether he considered remaining out during his cancer treatments, Cousin said, "I did, but I thought it would be better for me to come back to work rather than just being at home."
Deputy Superintendent Mamie Perkins, who was named to the position in February after serving as Cousin's chief of staff, ran the system while Cousin was out. She said she kept him informed about the daily workings of the school system during his absence.
Cousin said that after stepping down as superintendent, he plans to continue to serve the school system. "I always wanted to be a librarian; I would like to be an archivist or something like that," he said.
Sigaty said of the school system's future without Cousin: "As hard as it will be to let him go, there are talented people in education today, and one of them will be right for us."