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O'Rourke calls his exit best for all


Deposed Howard County Superintendent John R. O'Rourke gave a vague explanation yesterday for his surprise decision to take a buyout and leave four months before his contract expires June 30.

"It seems like it's in everybody's best interests," O'Rourke said.

He had previously pledged to complete his tenure and not be "pressured out" by the school board, which asked him to vacate his post after deciding last month not to renew his contract.

But, having been offered a buyout worth more than $100,000, he changed his mind. Last week, while O'Rourke was at a speaking engagement in California, the board announced that he would leave at the end of this month.

O'Rourke declined to say much yesterday, including whether he has been offered other positions or what he will do next.

"I'll decide after Feb. 29," he said. "Right now, my only [focus] is on being the very best superintendent I can be."

O'Rourke also refused to definitively say whether he will make public the results of a grade-tampering investigation he headed.

"You can expect to have something," he said, leaving "something" undefined.

The inquiry, which cost $40,000 and was conducted by an investigative firm made up of former FBI agents, ended last month. It looked into allegations that Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham had improperly changed a relative's grade at Centennial High School with the help of Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett.

Last week, Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, said board members expect O'Rourke to wrap up the investigation before he leaves and provide them with recommendations for disciplining or vindicating staff members.

O'Rourke said yesterday that he intends to do that.

"It's my responsibility," he said. "There's nothing more important for a school system than its academic integrity, professional integrity and personal integrity, and [the investigation] touched on all three."

O'Rourke has met twice with the school board in closed session this week. On Tuesday, board members officially closed a session to obtain "legal advice pertaining to the current status of an ongoing investigation," said Patricia Gordon, who made the motion to close. Yesterday, a second session was closed to discuss personnel issues and to "receive legal advice [related] to specific employees."

Neither the board nor the superintendent would confirm that the topic of the meeting was the Centennial investigation.

A Jan. 14 Maryland Public Information Act request by The Sun, seeking documents pertaining to the investigation, turned up little of apparent value and consisted largely of photocopies of school system policies and class assignments and rules.

"This investigation centers on aspects of public school operations which are highly confidential -- student information and public employee information. Accordingly, the records eligible for release under the Maryland Public Information Act are limited by legal confidentiality provisions," school system public information officer Patti Caplan wrote in a Feb. 23 letter denying a second Sun request, made Feb. 9.

The school board said public revelations are up to O'Rourke.

"It's up to the superintendent to make any sort of announcement he feels appropriate. It's not the board's role to do it," Watson said. "I don't know what his plans are."

The board has appointed Sydney L. Cousin, who retired in June as deputy superintendent, as O'Rourke's interim replacement, a move O'Rourke praised yesterday.

"Sydney Cousin is an outstanding educator and a fine human being," said O'Rourke, who worked with Cousin before he retired. "I have enormous respect for him."

School system staff members will hold a potluck send-off for O'Rourke tomorrow morning, Caplan said.

"Even if it's informal, it's important for us, as well as John," Caplan said. "We want to thank him for all he's done and wish him well."

Board member James P. O'Donnell said O'Rourke's decision to take the buyout is a good one.

"When everyone knows someone is going to leave, there's concerns, and uncertainty is difficult," O'Donnell said. "John has many other opportunities that he could take time to explore. I just think it's better for everybody."

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