An article in the April 17 Howard Extra incorrectly reported that Howard School Superintendent John O'Rourke ordered a management and performance review in 2000. The review was initiated by the County Council and Board of Education during the tenure of Superintendent Michael Hickey, whose term ended in May 2000. (Published 4/24/03)
Two policies under consideration by the Howard County Board of Education could signal a major shift in power from the board to the school superintendent, and that's ruffling more than a few feathers.
The proposed policies were prompted by a management and performance review ordered by School Superintendent John O'Rourke shortly after he was hired in 2000. In a report the next year, a consultant wrote that O'Rourke said conflicts were developing and trust was eroding between himself and the board, primarily because their respective roles aren't clear.
The report said the board often became too involved in administrative affairs, second-guessed management decisions or inundated school staff with requests for information. It also criticized board members' relationship with each other, saying the board "does not work effectively as a unit."
To remedy that, one proposed policy, drawn up by the superintendent's office with community input, would codify the board's practices for reviewing and adopting policies on everything from discipline to school bus contracts. The other one outlines the responsibilities of the board and the superintendent.
Board members are concerned that under the new guidelines, they would be limited to setting broad visions with no teeth, such as committing to educating every child or creating a safe environment. They also fear they would have little influence over grass-roots decisions, such as dress code rules and the grading system.
"The policy has the potential for setting up a different kind of set of rules for the school board," said board member Courtney Watson. "I think that's what board members are cautious about . . . but my sense is the staff and the superintendent do not wish to take any policy-making authority away from the board at all."
School board Chairman Sandra H. French said the proposed policies represent a "paradigm shift" in the board's operation and not just a power struggle between the elected five-member panel and the superintendent.
"Where is the board's mission? Where is the board's direction and belief"" French said last week. "All of that philosophy shapes what goes on paper."
Over the next two months, board members and school staff will hash out a new line between making policy and developing rules to carry it out. But even deciding how to discuss the proposed policies has produced emotional responses from several board members.
"Do any of you think we should do anything on this [policy] before the public hearing?" Watson asked during last week's regular meeting.
"Vote it down," French grumbled.
That exchange was subdued compared with the lengthy debate the issue sparked during a meeting late last month when board member Virginia W. Charles came close to tears and even the normally unflappable O'Rourke seemed exasperated.
"If the board has a good, solid sense of what . . . you're all about, then it might be easier to see how you relate to others," O'Rourke said.
Last week, he said that his relationship with the board is fine but that any effort to better define the roles of both sides "would be an improvement."
The board will conduct a public hearing and work session on the proposed policies before voting on them in May and June.