Board chooses 2 to vie for slot

Superintendent finalists to visit Howard County

January 15, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school board announced yesterday the two finalists for superintendent of a school system that has long been regarded as the best in the state.

Both -- John R. O'Rourke, of upstate New York, and David E. Sawyer, of central Florida -- are white men in their 50s with grown children. Each has recently been named Superintendent of the Year.

In an unusually open selection process, the finalists will visit the county next week and answer questions from the public.

Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, is stepping down in June after 16 years. He earns about $147,000 a year, plus benefits.

The school system Hickey's successor will inherit is largely white and affluent, but increasingly diverse.

Recently, issues have arisen over older schools that have low scores on standardized tests and how resources are shared. And in the most recent statewide testing, Howard County slipped for the first time from the No. 1 spot to No. 2.

O'Rourke, 55, is the superintendent of the Pittsford Central School District, near Rochester, N.Y., a 5,800-student district known for high academics. His salary is $135,000.

The Pittsford Central school district, in Monroe County, is one of Rochester's wealthiest suburbs.

Ninety percent of students are white. About 4 percent are African-American, 5 percent are Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander, and 1 percent are Hispanic, said Pattie Kearns of the school district's information office.

Pittsford has five elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools.

Pittsford's budget for the current school year is $60.3 million, Kearns said. In 1997, about 95 percent of its high school graduates went on to college, according to School Administrator magazine.

In 1997, O'Rourke was named New York State Superintendent of the Year and National Superintendent of the Year.

Howard County has 43,000 students in public schools, which include 37 elementary, 17 middle and 10 high schools. The school population is about 70 percent white, 30 percent minority.

O'Rourke has been superintendent in Pittsford since 1992. Before that, he was superintendent of the school district in Fulton City, in North-Central New York for four years.

O'Rourke earned his undergraduate degree at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and his master's from Syracuse University.

Bounds described O'Rourke as "a visionary leader, yet a practical one" and said he has "incredible energy."

Kim McCluski, vice president of the seven-member Pittsford Board of Education, said the district would be sorry to see O'Rourke go.

She called O'Rourke a "big-picture person" who thinks "outside the box."

O'Rourke will visit the school district and meet the community Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sawyer has been superintendent in Brevard County since 1994. Before that, he was superintendent of the school district in Clovis, Calif., for 2 1/2 years.

He also was assistant superintendent of Fairfax County, Va., schools from 1980-1988, where he helped develop the nationally known Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Howard County board member Jane B. Schuchardt said Sawyer is known for his integrity. Schuchardt said one of Sawyer's colleagues said "he exhibits the true spirit of effective leadership in that he does the right thing for the right reasons."

Sawyer, a Virginia native, was named superintendent of the year in 1998 by the Florida Association of School Superintendents.

He announced he was leaving in December after a public exchange over his contract negotiations with several members of the board the previous month.

Sawyer said he earns $125,000 a year.

"He's had an excellent performance record here; he's a real visionary," said Janice Kershaw, a school board member elected in 1998.

She said Sawyer turned the district around in his six years. "This was a district on the verge of losing its accreditation. Our facilities were crumbling. He turned all that around with his management style and by putting good people in top positions. I'm sure he'll be an asset wherever he goes," she said.

Brevard County is a fast-growing suburban middle-class area of 500,000, said Sarah Stern, a spokeswoman for the school district.

The 69,500-student district is 79 percent white, 14 percent African-American, 2 percent Asian and 4 percent Hispanic.

Sawyer said his school district has lived through many of the same issues currently facing Howard County, including rapid growth, aging schools and issues of equity.

Sawyer instituted an accountability plan that reached all aspects of the district, from parental involvement to academic achievement to the cleanliness of the district's campuses.

Sawyer, 53, earned his undergraduate degree from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va., and his master's degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk. He earned his doctorate from Texas A&M University in College Station in 1972.

He will visit the district and meet the community Thursday and Friday.

Both finalists have said they would make a long-term commitment to Howard County, which has had only three superintendents in the past 51 years.

The finalists were selected this week from a pool of six semifinalists. All six were from different states. Four were male; one was black. No internal candidates were considered as semifinalists.

Sun staff writers Larry Carson and Erika Niedowski contributed to this article.

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