Schools chief a hard choice

Officials say personal qualities, district size will be among factors

January 16, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The two finalists for Howard County's school superintendent job are strikingly different at first glance.

One comes from a 5,800-student school district in north-central New York in which 90 percent of the population is white.

The other runs a 69,000-student district in central Florida with a 20 percent minority population.

David E. Sawyer, superintendent of Brevard County public schools in Viera, Fla., manages an operating budget of more than $350 million. That's nearly six times the combined operating and capital budgets of Superintendent John O'Rourke's Pittsford Central School District.

By the numbers, Howard County -- with 43,000 students, almost 30 percent of whom are minorities, and an operating budget of nearly $300 million -- looks more like Sawyer's Florida district. But Howard school board members said it is the personal qualifications and qualities of the candidates that got them to the final round.

"They are highly successful candidates, people who've been in highly successful districts and looked at Howard County as an incredible opportunity," said board member Stephen C. Bounds, the district's spokesman for the superintendent search.

Both men have made a name for themselves.

O'Rourke was both the New York and national Superintendent of the Year in 1997. During his tenure, the school district won the New York State Governor's Excelsior Award for Quality.

Sawyer was Florida's Superintendent of the Year in 1998, one of more than 50 honors he's received in about 33 years as an educator.

"They're both extraordinarily good," said Jay Goldman, editor of the American Association of School Administrators' monthly magazine, which has published profiles of each in recent years.

Howard school board members said they were attracted by the candidates' drive for constant improvement, one of the main qualities they hope for in the person who will take charge July 1.

And the "chemistry" was right, Bounds said.

"There certainly is an element of connection on a personal level that can't be overstated," he said.

The community can judge for itself this week, when each comes in for a two-day visit. Until then, observers note, residents have little to go on except the men's resumes.

Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says that running a school district much smaller than Howard's could be a handicap for O'Rourke. But on the other hand, he said, school board members here must have seen qualities that outweighed that potential problem.

"He does seem to have longer tenure in his jobs than [Sawyer]," said Norris, a Columbia resident.

O'Rourke has held seven jobs since 1968. Since 1967, Sawyer has held 13.

Sawyer became superintendent of Brevard County schools in 1994. This school year, after a public dispute with Brevard school board members over his contract, he gave notice that he would look for a job elsewhere.

But here again, Norris said, "it's very difficult to read anything into the situation." Disputes between school chiefs and boards aren't unusual, he said.

"The average tenure of the big-city school superintendents is 2 1/2 years," he said.

Howard County Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung agreed that it's hard to judge the finalists by their resumes.

"I don't think you can do that with paper," Lorsung said. "I'm just anxious to have a chance to meet them."

Joanne Heckman, whose two children attend Howard schools, is most interested in learning more about the districts the finalists come from. It would be helpful, she thinks, if the communities are wealthy but dealing with inequities among schools.

The perception that older Columbia schools aren't as good as those elsewhere in the county is causing "middle-class flight" to other communities, leaving higher concentrations of lower-income pupils in Columbia, she said.

"You would like to find someone whose experience was with a similar population," said Heckman, a member of Howard County -- A United Vision, which is planning for the county's future.

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

John O'Rourke

Age: 55

Education: B.A., LeMoyne College, 1966; M.S., Syracuse University, 1968; Honorary Ph.D., LeMoyne College

Current job: Superintendent of schools, Pittsford, N.Y., since July 1992

Current salary: $135,000

Visiting: Tuesday, Wednesday; community reception 7: 30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday; staff reception 3: 30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday. All events will be held in the board room at the Department of Education, 10910 Route 108, Ellicott City.

David E. Sawyer

Age: 53

Education: B.S., Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 1967; M.S., Old Dominion University, 1970; Ph.D., Texas A&M University 1972

Current job: Superintendent of schools, Brevard County, Fla., since January 1994 Current salary: $125,000 Visiting: Thursday, Friday; community reception 7: 30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; staff reception 3: 30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Friday. All events will be held in the board room at 10910 Route 108, Ellicott City.

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