Finalist for superintendent appears before educators

New York school official draws large crowd in session geared to staff

January 20, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A candidate for Howard County school superintendent met yesterday with Department of Education personnel and talked about management style, teacher salaries, testing and other issues.

John R. O'Rourke, one of two finalists for superintendent, said his management style is to first analyze the data, talk with experts and people who would be affected by a decision, then make a decision.

O'Rourke also said he would bring to Howard County initiatives that were successful in the 5,800-student Pittsford Central School District he leads in upstate New York.

O'Rourke appeared before a standing-room-only crowd at the Department of Education in Ellicott City. Questions were submitted by people in the audience and read by a moderator.

This was his second day of appearances in the county. On Tuesday night, O'Rourke met with about 50 parents, school board candidates and community leaders.

Asked yesterday how he would respond to low teacher morale in Howard County, he answered: "The first order of business is understanding exactly what that means."

He said the Pittsford district conducts staff satisfaction surveys, and he discusses the results with the teachers union.

"I say, `Help me understand this better,' " said O'Rourke, 55. "If this was my home, I'd say, `Tell me exactly what this means so that I can serve you better.' "

O'Rourke also was asked what if educators don't demonstrate "continuous improvement" -- one of his goals in Pittsford.

If tenured teachers and administrators in Pittsford aren't effective, he said, they must work out specific improvement goals in meetings with their supervisors, central office personnel and the president of the teachers union. The school system also will look for ways, such as a mentoring program, to help teachers improve.

Asked about his experience with statewide testing and how he helps students achieve, O'Rourke said he sees each test as the equivalent of a "still shot" from a movie. Having more test results to look at is "critical," he said.

He said he also relies on a teacher's knowledge of a pupil.

"There's a tremendous resource represented by that professional judgment," he said.

The Howard County Education Association wanted to know what O'Rourke would do about staff salaries, including starting teacher salaries, which are ranked 10th in the state.

"I'm not in a position this afternoon to comment on a particular teacher salary schedule," he said.

That answer satisfied Joe Staub, president of the association, which represents teachers, administrators and educational support personnel.

"He wasn't playing to the audience," Staub said after the meeting. "I think he responded as well as he could. When he didn't answer a question, he was upfront about why. That's very important."

Kevin Mulroe, a fifth-grade teacher at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School near Ellicott City, also was impressed.

"He came in with a learn and wait-and-see attitude," said Mulroe, a member of the education association's board of directors. "In this county, that's what we need."

The other finalist for Howard superintendent is David E. Sawyer, 54, head of the 69,000-student Brevard County public schools in Florida.

Sawyer will meet with the community from 7: 30 p.m. to 9 p.m. today and with staff members from 3: 30 p.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow.

Both receptions will be held in the board room in the Department of Education building, 10910 Route 108.

The Howard school board hopes to select a superintendent at the end of this month or the beginning of next month.

Superintendent Michael E. Hickey is stepping down at the end of June after 16 years in office.

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