Nontraditional path for an administrator

Florida finalist takes hands-on approach

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

For many years, David E. Sawyer found great solace in climbing aboard his 35-foot sailboat, the J&B, and coasting out to the calm of Florida's Indian River, with the wind rippling through the sails.

"It's so quiet," said Sawyer, who is one of two finalists for Howard County superintendent of schools. "There are no engines running and no phones ringing. I find it very relaxing."

This summer, however, Sawyer sold the J&B, deciding to trade relaxing weekends on the river for new challenges.

At 54 years old, Sawyer has taken up the banjo.

He's teaching a course at a local university.

And he wants to be captain of another, much larger ship -- a 43,000-student school system that has long been noted as one of the best in Maryland but that faces increasing scrutiny from parents, county officials and others.

Many of Sawyer's friends and colleagues in Brevard County, Fla., where he has been superintendent for six years, say having the longtime educator at the helm of Howard County schools would be a boon for the district.

He's a visionary, they say. A powerful speaker. A passionate educator. A great leader.

"He has a view of how he thinks things could be and should be, and he kind of sets the tone for moving in that direction. Then he gets his staff going where he wants them to go," said Bill Johnson, Brevard County school district's communications director and a friend of Sawyer.

Sawyer has critics, in Florida and in Clovis County, Calif., where he was superintendent for a short term in the early 1990s. Some accused him of being arrogant and autocratic. Others said Sawyer was too down-to-business.

But few question his ability to lead a school district.

"He really did manage the education system for the county very well," said Edward Geier, mayor of Palm Bay, a city of 72,000 at Brevard County's southern end. "The man knew what he was doing. Grade levels in reading and math have gone up."

After graduating from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg in 1967, Sawyer taught industrial arts -- now more commonly known as technology education -- in Manassas and Chesapeake, Va.

While working on a master's degree at Old Dominion University, he worked as an instructor at Norfolk Shipbuilding & Drydock Corp.

Sawyer liked to work with his hands -- his father spent his entire working life in the shipyards -- but after a year, he decided to pursue his doctorate full time at Texas A&M University. From there, he went to the Alabama Department of Education, performing research in vocational and technical instruction, and in a year moved up to head the department's Office of Career Services, which focused on vocational guidance and industrial arts education.

In 1976, he became a tenured professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

In 1980, Sawyer made the jump to school administration, working as assistant superintendent of schools in Fairfax County, Va., where he oversaw development of the nationally recognized Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

"It's not the typical career track for a superintendent," Sawyer said. "I've never been a principal or an assistant principal."

He's been a superintendent since 1991, in Florida, California and Easley, S.C.

Sawyer says he likes being a leader but still considers himself a teacher.

"I think that's my first love," he said.

That's why he teaches a course in school finance at the University of Central Florida and why he's been a woodworking mentor for four years to a seventh-grader.

"We built a clock. We built an aquarium stand," Sawyer said, adding that the relationship is more for his sake than the boy's.

"I have to have a sawdust fix about once a week," he said.

Sawyer said he can't wait until his 2-month-old grandson is old enough to begin working with tools.

"I'll send him a saw," Sawyer said. "A saw and a hammer."

Sawyer, who has two grown sons, Gregory and Bruce, also has a 2-year-old granddaughter.

He said he and his wife, Joyce, who will celebrate their 33rd anniversary in May, are taking the "grandparents' thing" in stride.

Each day, the couple wake about 5: 30 a.m. and make their way to the gym.

"We've got a routine where we try to get a few good muscles going," Sawyer said.

Sawyer said he particularly enjoys his grandchildren these days, because they seem to be the only ones who enjoy his plunkings on his new banjo.

"They're the only people so far I've been able to discern who appreciate it," he said with a laugh.

Sawyer said he plans to stick with the banjo until he gets the chords right, no matter what his critics say.

He said he inherited that attitude from his grandfather, who had a saying:

" `Don't worry about the mule. You just load the wagon,' " Sawyer said. "In other words, you do your job. And as long as you get done what you're expected to do, then you'll be OK."

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

David E. Sawyer

Age: 54

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: Jan. 20-21; community reception 7: 30 p.m.-9 p.m. Jan. 20; staff reception 3: 30 p.m.-5 p.m. Jan. 21; all events will be held in the board room at the Department of Education, 10910 Route 108, Ellicott City. They will be televised live on cable Channel 72, which is Channel 16 in western Howard.

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