Sawyer says he's problem solver

School chief finalist `prepared' for issues

January 21, 2000|By Tanika White and Jamie Smith Hopkins | Tanika White and Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A finalist for Howard County school superintendent said he is attracted to the job because the public is involved in education issues, the school board wants to foster a team relationship and the community wants a leader willing to stay for the long haul.

"That's the kind of arrangement I'm looking for," said David E. Sawyer, 54. "We're going to solve problems if I'm employed."

Sawyer, one of two finalists, met last night with about 30 people -- parents, residents and school board candidates -- at the Department of Education building in Ellicott City. He told them he would be a good match for the 43,000-student system.

Sawyer heads Brevard County Public Schools in Florida. He has been superintendent about 12 years in three school systems -- Brevard County, Clovis, Calif., and Easley, S.C. He said his experience has prepared him to tackle some of the issues facing Howard, such as growth and demographic changes.

"Too many school districts wait too long to consider what steps they need to take to address such issues as equity and quality and equality," he said.

Being the head of school systems that already have dealt with such issues, "has certainly prepared me for the challenges that are being faced here," Sawyer said.

The Brevard County system has an operating budget of more than $350 million and 69,000 students in 97 schools. The school population is about 80 percent white and 20 percent minority.

Howard County, with an operating budget of close to $300 million, has 43,000 students in 64 schools. The population is about 70 white and 30 percent minority.

The other finalist is John R. O'Rourke, 55, superintendent of the Pittsford Central School District in upstate New York, which has an enrollment of 5,800 students. O'Rourke met with residents and school staff Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Howard school board hopes to select a superintendent by the beginning of next month. Superintendent Michael E. Hickey is stepping down at the end of June after 16 years.

Hickey's successor will take the reins of a school system that is considered one of the best in the nation. But Howard school officials have been hit with complaints that resources are inequitably distributed between older and newer schools, spurring the County Council to hold hearings and suggest that more oversight of spending might be needed.

If hired, Sawyer said, resources will be distributed equitably.

"I think the way you have to do that is to first make absolutely certain of what, in fact, constitutes a responsible learning environment," he said. "I am also a firm believer in a standard base."

Sawyer said he considered Howard, though a smaller system, a bigger challenge and a good fit.

"Your challenge here is your future," Sawyer said, referring to the system's recent fall to the No. 2 spot in the latest statewide tests and the emergence of equity concerns. "Maintaining your reputation as a high-quality school district for each and every student relative to those issues."

He praised the board and superintendent and community members for attempting to resolve the problems in a timely way.

"The good news is you are aware that these issues are here and you're gearing up to address them," Sawyer said.

He said he visits every new teacher's classroom in the first weeks of school, and drops in on tenured teachers.

He said he tries to spend a day with one student from each grade level every year, doing whatever it is the student does.

"I jumped a lot of rope, hopped a lot of scotch," Sawyer said.

Some who met with Sawyer last night said they gained a favorable impression of him.

"I think he is honest," said Kristine Lockwood, a seventh-grade math teacher at Glenwood Middle School and also one of 18 school board candidates. "He doesn't just tell us what we want to hear. He talked about that every student is capable of learning algebra. I agree with that so strongly and I appreciate his emphasis on student competence."

Josh Shipp, 17, a junior at Wilde Lake High School, said he liked Sawyer. "He seems to be focused on staff development and some of the issues that are facing the county, such as equity," Shipp said.

Sawyer will meet with staff members from 3: 30 p.m. to 5 p.m. today at the Department of Education building, 10910 Route 108.

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