Opinions sway on schools finalists

Parents meet hopefuls for superintendent

January 23, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

With little but resumes to go on at first, Columbia resident Rick Wilson had serious concerns about one of Howard County's two school superintendent finalists.

But in person, David E. Sawyer made a much better impression on the father of two. Now Wilson says he feels better about the possibility of the Florida superintendent taking over here, even though he still prefers the other contender, John R. O'Rourke from New York.

The public meetings with each candidate last week made a difference for other Howard residents, too. Some minds were changed, some fears were allayed, and some people now think either finalist would be a good successor to retiring Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

"Both of them, I think, are excellent choices," said Gene Shipp, a member of the Leadership Committee on School Equity, a school-reform group working on recommendations for the Howard system. "Both are very experienced, both candid."

Sawyer, 54, leads the Brevard County public schools in Viera, Fla., a 69,000-student district. Audience members commonly said Sawyer seemed knowledgeable and honest, and he impressed some with an impassioned statement that all children can, and should, learn algebra.

O'Rourke, 55, is superintendent of the Pittsford Central School District, which serves 5,800 students. Many who met O'Rourke said he seemed personable and analytical, and educators he spoke with while touring several schools said he was a particularly good listener.

In their separate meetings with the community, the finalists were questioned on issues such as teacher salaries, class schedules, community participation in school affairs, treatment of high-achieving African-American pupils and prayer in schools.

The head of the teachers union said he was satisfied with both men's answers to issues such as salary, even though neither promised to increase pay.

`A difficult decision'

"The school board has a difficult decision," said Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association, which also represents administrators and educational-support personnel.

A concern some residents initially had about Sawyer is the frequency with which he's switched jobs. He's held 13 since 1967, including three superintendent positions in 12 years. Howard County has had three superintendents in the past 51 years.

On the other hand, some residents took a look at O'Rourke's experience and wondered whether he could manage a district more than seven times the size of Pittsford. Howard County has 43,000 students.

Ellen Flynn Giles, chairwoman of the county schools' Citizens Advisory Committee, said neither question nagged her as much once she met the men.

She was pleased by what she saw as a "strong commitment" from Sawyer to stay in the county if hired. He told residents Thursday night that the school district's desire for a long-term superintendent is part of what attracted him to the position.

And O'Rourke's description of the challenges he's dealt with in Pittsford, a growing school district that is preparing to build another high school, gave her more confidence in him.

`Sign of a good search'

"The smallness of the system didn't stand out as that big of an impediment anymore," Giles said. "It's the sign of a good search that we ended up with these highly qualified candidates."

What turned Wilson off was the long list of activities and awards on Sawyer's resume, which didn't impress the president of the Wilde Lake Middle School's parent-teacher association. He expected Sawyer to be arrogant or smug. But instead, he found the candidate well-informed and well-spoken.

While he thinks O'Rourke would be a better consensus-builder, making him the better choice, he also believes Sawyer wouldn't be bad for Howard.

"He understands the county's problems remarkably for an outsider. If you could not listen to this gentleman talk, it would be so difficult to judge him," said Wilson. "Howard County will still have a forward-looking and good educational program under either of their leadership."

For some residents, though, the meetings only reinforced earlier opinions.

Ken Jennings, vice president for operations with the African-American Coalition of Howard County, says O'Rourke's experience in a small district makes him no match for Sawyer.

The Columbia resident questions the selection process and earlier urged the school board to release information detailing the experience levels of the candidates who reached the semi-finalist stage.

"I'm still trying to figure out how Mr. O'Rourke became one of the finalists," Jennings said.

The Leadership Committee's Shipp says he doesn't believe an experience gap exists between the finalists. To him, the choice comes down to personality.

"Dr. Sawyer was a very polished, open individual. I thought that John O'Rourke was more introspective and reflective," said Shipp, also the president of Wilde Lake High School's parent-teacher-student association. "My reaction is that the school board needs to assess the kind of style and the kind of intellectual approach that is best for Howard County and make the decision based on that."

Sun staff writer Tanika White contributed to this article.

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