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Schools ordered to yield papers

A Howard circuit judge ordered the school system yesterday to turn over documents withheld from a high school football coach, who said he needs them to retain his job and clear his name after he was implicated in a grade-changing scandal.

"Quite frankly, I would like to have had them back in March, but I guess the phrase 'better late than never' applies here," said Thomas R. Bundy III, attorney for Kenneth O. Hovet Jr., who sued for the documents' release, as well as unspecified damages and legal fees, which the judge has yet to address.

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Hovet said he needs the documents -- which include teacher testimony, principal memorandums and disciplinary referral forms -- to properly prepare an employment appeal, scheduled to begin tomorrow.

In February, former Superintendent John R. O'Rourke recommended that Hovet be fired from his positions at Oakland Mills High School as a teacher, coach and athletic director after he was accused of tampering with a student's grades to make him eligible to play football.

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"Mr. Hovet's job is at stake here," Bundy said. "He certainly has a right to examine" papers that could help him.

In March, the school system refused to give Hovet access to 26 documents he requested under the state's Public Information Act, claiming they were privileged. Hovet sued and won access to nearly all of them yesterday after Judge Dennis M. Sweeney determined there was little to no basis for the denial.

"The court is confident that while there may be slices here and there that can be argued about, the overall core of what the court is doing is within the mainstream principles of law under both the Maryland Public Information Act and the Federal Freedom of Information Act," Sweeney said during a 10- minute hearing, during which he ordered that the documents be hand-delivered to Hovet's attorney by 11 a.m. today.

Hovet might have had the data earlier if the attorney for the office of the superintendent, Leslie Stellman, had not put up a fight. In a memorandum issued in late May, Sweeney asked Stellman to reconsider the list of information being withheld and release more of it.

But Stellman offered to provide only four more of the documents on the long list of those denied. So the judge asked to see the documents himself and prepared his own list, calling the attorneys into his courtroom yesterday.

There, he offered a detailed release schedule that still protects certain things such as documents involving other employees and those that have to do with potential changes to system policies.

"Obviously, we continue to believe that the documents that we have withheld and the reasons [for doing so] are valid," Stellman said, but he added that he deferred to the court.


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