February 18, 2004 1 min read

A Long Goodbye

The Howard County, Md., public schools won’t have Superintendent John R. O’Rourke to kick around any longer. Or, at least, not after June 30.

After a falling-out with its schools chief, the school board of the suburban 46,000-student district, just south of Baltimore, voted 5-0 last month to not renew Mr. O’Rourke’s contract, which expires at the end of this school year.

Members of the board would like him gone sooner. But by Maryland law, only the state superintendent of schools can dismiss a local schools chief in the middle of his or her contract. Even then, it can be done only for such flagrant transgressions as willful neglect of duty.

Courtney Watson, who chairs the Howard County school board, argues that forcing the district to retain its superintendent after the panel gave him a vote of no- confidence doesn’t make sense.

“Nowhere in private industry or the federal government do you have a situation where your CEO is legally protected and allowed to stay regardless of his employer’s decision to terminate him,” she said.

Ms. Watson said her board is seeking to amend the state law to let local school boards oust superintendents in the last four months of their contracts. Barring that, the board’s only option is to convince Mr. O’Rourke to accept a buy-out of his contract. Although he has declined to comment, he had earlier told the local press he has no plans to leave.

Mr. O’Rourke, who was named the 1997 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, came to Howard County in 2000. Asked why he fell out of favor with the board, Ms. Watson said only: “We would never nonrenew a contract if there weren’t performance issues.”

The state law barring local school boards from firing superintendents dates to the 1960s, but only recently has it stirred controversy. In 2002, state officials thwarted efforts by the Prince George’s County, Md., school board to fire its superintendent. State lawmakers then disbanded the district’s board and appointed a new one. (“Prince George’s County School Board to Be Replaced Under New Md. Law,” April 17, 2002.)

—Jeff Archer