Finalists follow different routes to similar goals

Strong principles intact, Sawyer moving on to next challenge

`He's very straightforward'

Choosing A Superintendent

January 30, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. -- David E. Sawyer has begun packing his office. The walls are just about bare. There are holes where pictures used to be.

It's been six years of push and pull, a steady climb uphill for the superintendent of Brevard County, Fla., public schools.

And now, Sawyer says, it is time to move on.

Time to leave the long, skinny district of more than 75 schools that abuts the Atlantic Ocean and several shimmering rivers. Say good-bye to the sunshine and palm trees, 70-degree winter weather and the school buildings that smell like oranges.

Give up the butter-yellow sun porch he and his wife just finished building at the back of their spacious three-bedroom home with the wrap-around porch.

But Sawyer, 54 -- who is one of two finalists for superintendent in Howard County -- says there are a few things he won't leave behind. And any future employer should know it.

His mouse collection.

His banjo.

His personality.

His convictions.

"Wherever I am," Sawyer said, with a slight Southern drawl, "whether it's Kmart greeter or superintendent of schools, what I'm going to do is what I think's right."

It's that kind of unbending conviction that brought Sawyer in 1994 to the 69,000-student district that was desperately in need of a leader. Some now say it's exactly what is sending him on his way.

"Some of his strengths may also come back on him as weaknesses, too," said Brevard school board member Janice Kershaw. "He's very honest. He's very straightforward. He has a lot of integrity," she said. "While some people appreciate that, some people don't."

When Sawyer arrived in Brevard County, the school system was failing. Student test scores were among the top in the state but the district was nearly bankrupt, buildings were falling apart and the state was threatening to take action.

"Through his leadership, he has turned those two areas [finance and maintenance] around completely," said Joyce Parten, principal of Gemini Elementary School, one of the county's prize schools. "He developed an organizational plan that worked so well for schools."

He tore schools apart. Renovated and reorganized. Built eight schools. Wired them all for the Internet. Beefed up technology education.

Sawyer also initiated a strict accountability plan for teachers, students, parents and administrators, and extended the work day for teachers by a half-hour.

All necessary, people agree.

"I think the majority of people would tell you that the schools are a lot better off than they were five years ago," said school board member Paula E. Veibl. "But sometimes it's not what you do, it's how you do it."

To fix the problems, Sawyer attempted to pass a bond referendum in his first year, which failed.

"I think that was the beginning of a lot of people who were unhappy," Veibl said.

Veibl said some community members would have preferred that Sawyer observe first and then, in a year or two, try to pass a bond. His boldness was taken as arrogance.

Without the bond, Sawyer had to come up with the money for the many renovations needed. As a partial solution, he denied teachers a pay raise, ignoring the advice of an independent mediator.

"I think for that reason he didn't endear himself to the teachers," said Fran Baer, president of the Brevard County Federation of Teachers.

Now that the district is in better shape financially, Sawyer has made good on his promise to see about the teachers. Salaries are up 5 percent to 6 percent.

But many teachers find his fist-on-table decision-making, coupled with his ultra-professional demeanor, off-putting. As many teachers praise Sawyer for being intelligent, organized, articulate and a strong, caring leader who listens, just as many find him abrasive, cool and lacking diplomacy.

"Occasionally he hasn't always been very sensitive to teachers," said Christine Newman, a kindergarten teacher at Gemini, recalling a faculty meeting where Sawyer explained lengthening the work day from 7 1/2 hours to eight hours by reminding teachers that's how it was done "in the real world."

Baer said Sawyer has become better at including others' input before making major decisions.

Even in the schools that still struggle, like in the poverty-heavy Cocoa area, most of Sawyer's staff members are sorry to see him go.

At the pink-and-teal Endeavour Elementary School, where test scores rank near the bottom in the county, Principal Debbie Lyons believes Sawyer's renovations have at least something to do with the strides the school is making.

"When kids are coming from deplorable conditions, their school should look like the Magic Kingdom," Lyons said. Before Sawyer's arrival, the school's facade nearly blended into the dark brick and concrete housing projects next door, she said.

Some are not so sorry he's leaving, saying Sawyer could have done a better job relating to the minority students in his nearly 85-percent white district.

But, Lyons said, Sawyer has often acted on behalf of the district's minorities even when it wasn't popular to do so.

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