PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Last semester, teen-agers on a student advisory council here told Superintendent John R. O'Rourke that the cafeteria food left something to be desired.
O'Rourke brought in the food service director, who was studying the issue, to chat with the students. And the town's two high schools were stocking Subway sandwiches and Papa John's pizza less than a month later.
That impressed 18-year-old Jeff Mancuso, a member of the council, who's not used to having his input mean much. O'Rourke -- one of two finalists for school superintendent in Howard County -- truly seems to listen, Mancuso said.
"He really sounded like what you had to say, he was really going to look into it," said the high school senior, who moved to Pittsford from Atlanta in 1998.
Being listened to is important for people in this largely residential town of about 25,000.
Pittsford is 24 square miles of rolling hills, farmland and houses upon houses upon houses -- from the modest to the multimillion-dollar. The Erie Canal runs through here and underneath Main Street. In the heart of town, known as the Village, quaint shops and historic buildings line the streets. Twice a year -- in the summer and just after school begins in the fall -- thousands gather outside to dance in the Village and celebrate their efforts to be a community in spirit as well as name.
"We have something pretty special here," said Bill Carpenter, Pittsford's supervisor, sitting in the 110-year-old Town Hall. "It's about family, it's about neighborhood, it's about community."
Pittsford, a wealthy suburb of Rochester, is filled with highly educated, civic-minded people who have plenty of opinions on how things should be run -- and they want leaders to hear them.
Community focal point
The schools, with an enrollment of 5,800 students, are a focal point. About 95 percent of graduates go to college. And residents put time and effort into the schools, volunteering 80,000 hours a year.
"It's not a community where you take a parent's hand and say, `Trust us, we'll take care of everything,' " said Linda Monte, president of Pittsford's Parent Teacher Student Association.
O'Rourke, 55, realizes this, Monte said. She said opportunities for community involvement have increased "dramatically" during O'Rourke's eight years as superintendent.
Parents sit on all major committees, and their perspective is considered as important as the opinions of other members, she said.
"We try to reach a consensus that everyone can live with," Monte said.
Input from surveys
During O'Rourke's tenure, the district also instituted "customer satisfaction surveys" that have students, parents and staff members rate the district on areas ranging from bathroom cleanliness to the quality of communication.
"John's attitude is, you've got to know what they think to improve," Monte said.
Carpenter, whose two daughters attend Pittsford Sutherland High School, his alma mater, said O'Rourke has managed a difficult feat: coming into a good district and making it better.
"As a leader, there's a quiet confidence about John that you see and you feel," Carpenter said.
An award winner
It was O'Rourke's idea that the district apply for the New York State Governor's Excelsior Award for Quality, a recognition bestowed upon schools that are especially well-managed. Pittsford tried in 1994, unsuccessfully. In 1996, it was the sole district to earn the award.
"That was a concrete validation of just how far we had come," said O'Rourke, sitting in the family room of the traditional Colonial house he and his wife, Eileen, built six years ago in Pittsford.
With Yo-Yo Ma's cello suites playing softly in the background, O'Rourke talked last week about processes and procedures, missions and visions, and the annual Comprehensive Action Plan that spells out what the Pittsford district will accomplish and who is responsible for each task.
"You can't control a school district," he said. "What you can do is manage -- and bring people together."
Administrators and teachers say O'Rourke's changes have made their jobs easier.
Instructors used to spend hundreds of hours on committees, and then nothing would come of their work, said David Vitale, a seventh-grade English teacher at the district's only middle school. O'Rourke solved that problem by clarifying who reports to whom and who's responsible for what, Vitale said.
"I don't think there's the burnout that there used to be on committees," said John Rooke, a seventh-grade science teacher.
"I learned you never take anything for granted. That you can't have too much community participation." John R. O'Rourke,superintendent finalist
Kathleen Walling, principal of Pittsford Mendon High School, said O'Rourke is "never, ever one to cast blame." What Walling hears him say instead is: "We need to examine our procedures so we can do this better next time."
That's what O'Rourke and staff members did when a major school-facility bond referendum failed at the beginning of last year.