Damage control

HOWARD COUNTY students and parents deserve better than the drama unfolding now that relations have soured between School Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and the county school board.

The board has voted 5-0 not to renew his contract, as is its prerogative. Instead of preparing to make a graceful exit, Mr. O'Rourke has dug in his heels and begun dishing dirt. This only further sullies the district's reputation, and risks affirming critics' allegations that he's weak on people skills.


That he's being let go during continuing, back-to-back investigations into allegations of grade changing at two schools complicates and colors the school board's decision. One of the accused is the superintendent's deputy, who therefore cannot step up to run the system until the cloud of scandal is cleared. As it begins a search to replace Mr. O'Rourke, the school board may also have to look outside for an interim chief.

In the interest of restoring stability to the district's governance, at least two lessons must be learned:


First, the allegations of wrongdoing at Oakland Mills and Centennial high schools warranted swift justice, to preserve the district's integrity and send an unequivocal message that grade tampering will not be tolerated. As they have festered, they have infected the public and staff's confidence in district leadership.

The school board claims its disappointment with Mr. O'Rourke includes a perception that delays in getting to the bottom of these charges have left the system open to insinuations of favoritism and cover-up. The board has asked him to wrap up the investigations before moving on. Mr. O'Rourke countered by suggesting that the board has tried to limit the probe.

Whatever the truth is, both must understand that their reputations are inexorably tied now to whether they do what is in the best interests of the students, to whom they owe an honest and speedy resolution of these scandals.

And second, Howard parents must ask whether the school board has been on top of, and sufficiently forthcoming about, the mounting in-house concerns about district leadership that led to Mr. O'Rourke's release. The system shed a string of trusted administrators before the board acted, and in 2003, 65 percent of teachers polled by their union disapproved of the superintendent's leadership. Widely credited with establishing a promising program for reducing Howard's achievement gap, Mr. O'Rourke has in general enjoyed the public support of the school board, which fretted about possibly losing him only about six months ago. The fallout from its flip-flop should be a reminder that openness is more than an obligation - it preserves the public trust.