A school superintendent who likes to dictate more than collaborate -- which has been said about Howard County's John R. O'Rourke -- was bound to butt heads with a school board that has spent the past year flexing its muscle.
That conflict set up a power struggle between superintendent and school board, a fight O'Rourke lost last week when board members told him that his contract would not be renewed when it expires June 30.
The news stunned many in Howard County, which has seen only four schools superintendents in the past 55 years. Some worry that this will be another blot on Howard's otherwise stellar education reputation, which has taken multiple hits during the past few months, including allegations of improper grade-changing by people in O'Rourke's Cabinet, forfeited sports seasons after ineligible players were discovered at Columbia's Oakland Mills High School and the exodus of a half-dozen top school system officials.
"Howard County is not used to this kind of negative publicity," said William Davis, assistant principal at Atholton High School in Columbia. "I think everybody is in shock."
Board members will say only that O'Rourke's management style, which has been described as uncommunicative, was among the determining factors in ending his tenure. But members have previously criticized O'Rourke for overstepping his bounds as their employee by trying to tell them how to govern and leaving them out of important decisions.
Board of Education members have spent the past 14 months trying to forge and rebuild partnerships, and open lines of communication, after multiple allegations that past and some present members have operated in secret or violated the state's open-meeting laws.
They have been making a public point to show who is the boss in their relationship with the superintendent after questions about their leadership arose in November 2002. At the time, the board agreed to place an addendum on O'Rourke's contract, since rescinded, that promised him a year's salary if his contract wasn't renewed. Some characterized O'Rourke's request as extortion.
Yesterday, school board members traveled the county to spread the message that Howard does have leaders, with or without O'Rourke.
"We felt it was important to go out into the schools today to reassure staff that we will get the system though this crisis," said board Chairman Courtney Watson, who had visited nine schools by early afternoon. "We wanted to make sure they felt comfortable the board was strong."
One reason for the board's change of heart on O'Rourke could be turnover. Watson joined the board after the vote on O'Rourke's contract addendum, taking Jane Schuchardt's seat in December 2002. When she ran for the seat, Watson promised to hold the superintendent accountable "for issues that are important to the public."
Joshua Kaufman is also new to the five-member board, taking over the spot Virginia Charles vacated in June.
School board members weren't the only ones who chafed under O'Rourke's leadership,. School system and teacher union surveys also have shown that parents and educators have little faith in the superintendent, and some community members launched campaigns to bring him down.
"School systems are not built on a military hierarchy. They're built on relationships," said Gene Streagle, who retired as the school system's director of high schools in 2001. "That's the one thing I always thought was a major difference [between the previous superintendent and O'Rourke] -- the relationship between the superintendent and the staff."
Michael E. Hickey spent 16 years in Howard until O'Rourke took over in 2000. He knew the names of school staff, Streagle said -- he was visible, he was accessible and he let administrators steer their own ships.
O'Rourke is the opposite. He set up a Cabinet in charge of responsibilities Hickey used to manage himself, he spends less time in schools, he asks principals to adopt a more uniform style, he makes demands.
"I probably would have been a little uncomfortable with that style," said Streagle, who also acknowledged that he might not have retired when he did if Hickey had remained. "But then again, when you're an underling, you do what you're told" -- until you lose trust in your leader, said Streagle, who teaches a leadership class to educators at the Johns Hopkins University.
"If a leader loses trust, the troops don't necessarily want to follow the directions they're given," he said. "First morale goes, then trust follows; and once trust goes, you have a system that sometimes goes to shambles. That's usually the track."
It's a point some fear Howard is speeding toward.
"If any of us think this system will run itself by itself without leadership, I do believe that's the wrong way to think," said Jerry Bialecki, PTA president at Howard High School in Ellicott City. "We need a leader, and it concerns me that this process could take a while."
O'Rourke declined to comment yesterday, other than to say that he has "every right to stay until the end of [his] contract." Watson agreed, which means the board has five months to find a successor. The last search took more than a year.
Last night, the board called a last-minute meeting to start the process.
Members said they will begin surveying consulting firms immediately. During the search that found O'Rourke, the board sent proposals to nearly 20 firms, finally settling on Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, based in Illinois.
Their services cost the school system nearly $39,000, but former board member Schuchardt implied that O'Rourke was worth it. She said she has always been impressed with him and was surprised by the board's decision.
"He came with a strong mission and goals," Schuchardt said.
County Councilman David A. Rakes said he was also surprised.
"I thought he was doing a pretty good job communicating with the community and on the budget," Rakes said of O'Rourke, adding that he worries that losing the superintendent will hurt the school system's efforts to close achievement gaps among races, which O'Rourke had promised to do by 2007.
"In addition to setting goals, he was willing to be held accountable," Rakes said. Watson said the board will continue to work toward O'Rourke's goals.
But most who expressed an opinion yesterday said the move was a good one.
County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon said the school system has been under a black cloud, and only a leadership change will remove it. Councilman Ken Ulman said it was "probably the right way to go." Del. Shane E. Pendergrass said the board "wouldn't have done this if it didn't need to be done." And West Friendship PTA President Cindy Haller said she "trusts that the school board is watching out for the best interests of the community."
And despite the turmoil at the top, some noted that the most important factors that have made Howard's school system among the best in the state remain the same.
"The single constant over these past 30 or 40 years has been the teaching staff and the quality of the children who are coming into the system," Streagle said. "Things were going well and have always gone well because of those two factors. The upper hierarchy can change, but the mission is still the same, no matter who's at the helm."
Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.