Interim Schools Chief Gets the Job
Unanimous Howard Board Chooses Cousin to Lead System Through 2008
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2004; Page B01
Sydney L. Cousin, who retired from the Howard County school system last year only to be lured back as its interim superintendent, was chosen yesterday to lead the 47,000-student district through 2008.
In voting unanimously to appoint Cousin, 58, the school board abandoned plans to conduct a year-long national search. Board Chairman Courtney Watson said that an extended hiring process would have created too much uncertainty and that board members were impressed by Cousin's performance as interim leader.
"We have a known commodity in Dr. Cousin," she said. "He's done well, and we've seen the reaction of staff to his leadership. . . . [Employees] believe he can lead them forward."
Cousin's predecessor, John O'Rourke, was an outsider to Howard County, recruited from Upstate New York in 2000 with a national reputation and a big league salary -- $180,000, or about $37,000 more than the previous superintendent had received.
O'Rourke was praised for his efforts to close an achievement gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers, but his relationship with the school board soured last year as questions arose about his management style, which critics called aloof. A number of administrators under O'Rourke either left or were fired.
In January, the five-member board decided not to renew his four-year contract. O'Rourke accused the board of trying to push him out and resigned in February, four months before the contract was to expire.
Cousin, who was working for the D.C. school system after retiring from Howard, returned to serve the remainder of O'Rourke's term, and this month the board announced that it intended to remove "interim" from his title.
"I think it's the right choice at the right time," said Michael E. Hickey, who was the county's superintendent for 16 years before O'Rourke and who hired Cousin in the mid-1980s as director of planning and construction. "I think he's already had a calming effect, and I think he will continue to get things in order very quickly."
Cousin, a Baltimore native, became a familiar and respected figure in the Howard school system as he steered the fast-growing county through nearly two dozen school construction projects and countless renovations. He is known for his knowledge of the district and a succinct speaking style that has become his trademark.
"Damn, how that silence speaks," said Charles I. Ecker, a former Howard administrator who is now superintendent of schools in Carroll County. "You don't have to say a lot to be efficient and to be very productive."
Board members said Cousin's history in Howard and the respect for him among school staff members is what persuaded them to scrap plans for a national search. The board has not decided Cousin's salary.
In a recent survey of school staff members by the county teachers union, 85 percent said they supported the board's decision to replace O'Rourke. And although the county PTA Council criticized the board for not conducting a wider search, its president, Deborah Wessner, said parents are pleased with Cousin.
Ellen Giles, a member of the school board's Citizens Advisory Committee, said: "I think this is a good move. . . . There are so many things that are in flux. We really do need somebody who understands where we are in order to get us forward. If [the superintendent] were coming in blind to this, I think we would have instability for a much longer time."
After Cousin graduated from Morgan State University, he taught for three years at a tough Baltimore junior high school. He left to attend graduate school and then worked in planning and facilities for Baltimore and its school system for several years before joining the Howard district.
He first moved to Howard County in 1973, drawn by the promise of Columbia's racially and socioeconomically diverse villages. His two children graduated from Oakland Mills High School. He lived in Baltimore from 1977 to 1990, when he returned to Howard.
When he retired last summer, Cousin was deputy superintendent and the highest-ranking black administrator in the county. He didn't stay out of work for long, accepting a job as chief of facilities for D.C. schools, though a back injury kept him from starting that job until January. A few weeks later, Watson called him about returning to Howard as interim superintendent.
In recent months, Cousin has brought back several of the administrators who left under O'Rourke, promoting some to high-level positions. His staff reorganization allows for more school-based management and gives teachers and principals more influence, he said. Cousin said he clears his schedule once a week to drop in at schools.
At an informal community meeting last week, he received several rounds of applause as he outlined plans to provide teachers with resources for instruction and to boost the performance of low-achieving students.
"I'm glad to be back," he told the crowd of about 50. "This is my home, first of all."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company