The Howard County school system has dealt with a string of controversies this year, including the departure of its superintendent and an investigation into allegations that two administrators improperly changed the academic records of a student -- the child of one of the administrators.
Last week, the county school board cleared the administrators of wrongdoing. A few months earlier, the board decided not to renew the contract of Superintendent John O'Rourke, who then resigned after four years on the job. Sydney L. Cousin, a longtime Howard educator, has been hired as interim superintendent while the board searches for a permanent successor.
By e-mail, school board Chairman Courtney Watson answered questions from staff writer Ylan Q. Mui.
Q You've had a tumultuous ride since becoming chairman of the school board six months ago. How has that affected the way you approach your position?
A It has been an unusual year for the school system. I have learned to expect not only the unexpected, but also the unimaginable. There have been significant challenges, but there is also a new sense of teamwork and collaboration that has emerged with the board; our superintendent, Dr. Cousin; and with the school system staff. You are the only board member who has children in the school system. Does that influence your decisions?
My parental perspective most definitely impacts the decisions I make on the board. For example, one of my children was redistricted last year, so I understand firsthand the difficulties children face when redistricted. I can also tell parents that, although [redistricting is] difficult, my family survived [it], and they will also survive it. The board should always have at least two members who have children in the school system. I have encouraged other parents to run for election to the board because I feel this is a very important perspective that was sometimes missing on the board in the past.
Last week, the board ruled in favor of two top school officials who appealed their demotions by former superintendent John O'Rourke after the grade-changing allegations. You have said that the heart of the issue was the line between being a parent and being a leader in the school system. How do you balance the two in your own life?
It's an almost impossible balance to keep. Once you are a public official in the school system, you are never seen as "just a parent." I try to keep in mind the perceptions that staff members may have when they interact with me as a parent. We also have adjusted to my role [in the] family, so that my husband does much of the advocating for our children. It's a job he does well but one that I miss and consider a sacrifice that goes with the territory of being an elected official.
More changes may be ahead for Howard as the search for a superintendent begins. What is your timeline, and what qualities are you looking for?
We are looking for a superintendent who has a collaborative style and is able to engage all constituent groups in the county. We need a leader who will have the dedication to actively pursue the goals of our comprehensive plan for student achievement and in particular help close the achievement gaps. We are looking for someone who can take the school system to the next level of excellence and do so with a human touch. In fact, our current interim superintendent, Dr. Cousin, might be an excellent choice.
Have you started to think about life after your four-year term on the board ends in 2006? What are your plans?
On most days, I feel that serving on the Board of Education is an honor and a privilege. On the few days when it feels less a privilege and more of an incarceration, I think of retiring and becoming "just a parent" again. I hope that more parents with children in the schools will join me on the Board of Education and that I will be able to pass the torch and return to my private life in 2006.