Troubled year changed ideas on O'Rourke


Just over a year ago, three of the five Howard County school board members were so desperate to retain Superintendent John R. O'Rourke that they promised to renew his contract when the time came or pay him a year's salary.

But over this past year of grade-tampering scandals, key personnel departures and an increasingly distant relationship with the superintendent, they changed their minds.

"Over this past year, it became obvious to me that I had made a mistake," said board member James P. O'Donnell. "We need a different leader if we're going to do the best we can for Howard County."

The school board told O'Rourke on Jan. 15 that it would not renew his contract when it expires June 30 because of concerns about his leadership style and lack of collaboration with board members.

It was an about-face from the pledge of November 2002 - rescinded under questions of legality - when members thought they could not live without O'Rourke, who had been with the system since July 1, 2000.

Since then, two seats have turned over, and the remaining three members - Patricia S. Gordon, Sandra H. French, and O'Donnell - say they have seen the light.

O'Donnell, who joined the board in January 2002, said he initially attributed problems in the system "to a poorly functioning board undermining the superintendent."

But as new members arrived - Courtney Watson in December 2002 and Joshua Kaufman in October last year - and board relations improved, the problems did not, O'Donnell said.

"It became obvious to me that all of the difficulties we were having were not the board's fault," he said.

French said the recent staff exodus from the Howard system contributed to her questioning of O'Rourke.

"We were losing top personnel," she said. "To lose one or two to retirement, that's a normal process, but when it speeds up and there are other partings of ways that have never occurred in Howard County before, it makes me worry."

In the past year, more than a half-dozen top staff members have retired, left Howard for other counties or been fired. And although French said she did not have the details on most of the departures, she added that she could not discount leadership as a factor.

"It is the same as a building principal," she said. "When there is a building principal that everyone believes in and trusts and is willing to work with, then they stay. They don't ask for a whole lot of transfers out of the school."

French, who has served Howard County for nearly 12 years as a board member, said she agreed to the 2002 renewal promise out of fear.

"I very definitely believed that we could be without a superintendent within a matter of months," French said. "Wouldn't it have been devastating if after two years we had to start another search?"

O'Rourke asked the board for the renewal promise in 2002, more than a year before law allows, because, he said, he had been approached by a Connecticut school system that was willing to pay him more money and was close to his grandchildren.

He and his wife had just bought a house, and O'Rourke said he was looking for assurance that the Howard board was committed to him and his initiatives. He was looking, he said, to avoid a situation like the one he is in now.

"This is exactly what I was thinking of," O'Rourke said.

French said she believed the school system needed the stability of at least four years with a superintendent, and she espoused his ideas, so she voted for the 2002 deal.

"I was only looking to get to the end of the four-year contract. I wasn't looking at six years; I was just looking at that one contract," she said.

Gordon said she had agreed to the contract renewal promise because she "felt that [O'Rourke] had laid out an excellent program" and wanted to give him the opportunity to see it through.

O'Rourke had restructured the Howard system and begun a comprehensive plan he said would eliminate the achievement gap among races by 2007 and bring test scores up to state standards by 2005.

"It was his baby," Gordon said.

But she has since determined that O'Rourke's methods might hinder the process or at least the board's involvement in it.

"We found ourselves at a certain point uninformed about a great number of things that were going on. More and more things came to the surface," Gordon said, pointing to two grade-tampering investigations - at Columbia's Oakland Mills and Ellicott City's Centennial high schools - that took far longer than the board would have liked.

Board members also complained that O'Rourke did not inform them about the progress of the investigations.

"Maybe he found that it stultified his style for him to come to us," she said.

Although O'Rourke has always received high marks for his academic initiatives, other areas have been troubling to some.

Board members say they were frequently left out of big decisions, such as creating the budget.

Joe Staub, president of the teachers union, said O'Rourke ignored requests to study educator workload. Howard High School parent Jerry Bialecki said O'Rourke did not respond to the concerns of parents. An anonymous letter accused O'Rourke's top staff of changing grades for a relative. And - perhaps most damaging of all - O'Rourke set up a system to delegate responsibility that could carry out his ambitious plan without him.

"That's the true beauty of everything," O'Rourke said. "It's not dependent upon one person. It's about a system, not an individual."

The Howard board determined Jan. 13 that it needed more collaboration and cooperation from its superintendent - a decision that has been mostly praised in letters sent to the board since the announcement.

Even with the support, though, board members are uneasy.

"I'm not comfortable with any of this," French said. "You know, we are a family. So everybody's upset. Some people may be happy and rejoicing, but we're always worried about the next step. We may not do well at all. The unknown is of serious concern."

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