Public eyes finalist for school chief

O'Rourke pledges to focus attention on the classroom

Candidate is questioned

Sawyer scheduled to arrive tomorrow for series of meetings

January 19, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Four days after emerging as one of two finalists to run Howard County schools, New York state native John R. O'Rourke met last night with about 50 parents, school board candidates and community leaders.

O'Rourke -- 55, who is superintendent of the Pittsford Central School District near Rochester, N.Y. -- told them that he would focus on classroom instruction, partnerships with the community and improving student achievement if he is named schools superintendent.

The Pittsford district, in one of Rochester's wealthiest suburbs, has an enrollment of 5,800 and a reputation for high academic achievement. O'Rourke's salary is $135,000.

O'Rourke spoke for a little more than an hour in the first of two public sessions designed to allow residents to meet the finalists.

People wrote their questions on note cards that were read by a moderator. They questioned O'Rourke about his ability to work in a school system more than five times the size of Pittsford's; whether he had ideas about closing the achievement gap among all groups of students; and his views on special education, open-space buildings, vouchers and charter schools.

O'Rourke said he was confident many of the skills he used to run the Pittsford district could transfer to Howard County.

He said he needed to understand the academic-achievement gap before he tried to solve the problem. He would find school systems that were successful in closing the gap and "then steal from them," he said with a laugh.

O'Rourke said he was in favor of state and standardized tests, but not as the sole way to assess a student, a school or a system.

He said open-space buildings, which have been the norm in Howard County schools for years, work for some students but not all.

His goal, O'Rourke said, will be to make Howard schools the "schools of choice" to eliminate the need for school vouchers or charter schools.

"So that everyone would know that this where I want my child to be," he said.

Many who attended the forum said they liked O'Rourke.

"I was impressed with the amount of community and parent involvement he expressed," said Virginia Charles, one of 18 school board candidates. "We know that one of the greatest ways to improve schools is to encourage parental involvement."

"I like the way he speaks comfortably and extemporaneously," said Rick Wilson, PTA president at Wilde Lake Middle School, one of the five schools O'Rourke visited before meeting the public.

He also visited Wilde Lake High School, Running Brook and Ilchester elementaries and Ellicott Mills Middle School at Bonnie Branch.

"We wanted him to experience the breadth of experience in our Howard County schools," board Chairwoman Sandra H. French said. "Old and new, Columbia and county, elementary, middle and high."

O'Rourke is scheduled to meet with school system staff members at a public reception from 3: 30 p.m. to 5 p.m. today at the Board of Education, 10910 Route 108 in Ellicott City.

The other finalist is David E. Sawyer, 54, superintendent of the Brevard County, Fla., school district who will visit tomorrow and Friday.

"Leadership for me involves engaging the community, articulating a vision of what might be, thinking through what it is we want for our children, how will we provide it, and how will we know if we've done it well," O'Rourke said.

He also met with the school board, the assistant superintendents, the County Council and County Executive James N. Robey.

"He definitely seemed very open and friendly and interested to hear what parents had to say," said Mary Jo Neil, the Parent-Teacher-Student Association council president.

In a letter to the school board last week, the African-American Coalition of Howard County said its membership was uneasy about the selection process because O'Rourke's resume appears thinner than Sawyer's, whose district is more comparable in size and makeup to Howard County.

"Through the released resumes, the board seems to be giving the appearance that there is a candidate they have decided to hire, Dr. Sawyer, who by stark contrast of quality of experience and presentation is significantly more desirable than the other finalist," the coalition wrote.

After meeting O'Rourke, Wilde Lake's Wilson had a different view, wondering how Sawyer could have the time to be on so many committees, and participate in so many activities with such a large school district to run.

"If he's busy on all these committees," Wilson said, "who's minding the shop?"

In 1997, O'Rourke was named New York State Superintendent of the Year and National Superintendent of the Year by a national group of education administrators.

Superintendent Michael E. Hickey is stepping down in June after 16 years. The school system that Hickey's successor will inherit is largely white and affluent, but increasingly diverse.

Arguments have surfaced in the past several months over older schools where students have recorded low scores on state tests, as well as over how county school funds are shared. In the most recent statewide testing, Howard County slipped for the first time from the No. 1 spot to No. 2.

Ninety percent of Pittsford's students are white. About 4 percent are African-American, 5 percent are Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islander, and 1 percent Hispanic. Pittsford has five elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools.

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 and 30 percent minority.

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