County selects schools leader

Howard board votes unanimously to offer job to O'Rourke

`The chemistry is right'

New superintendent signs 4-year contract for $180,000 annually

February 05, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

John R. O'Rourke, who was national superintendent of the year in 1997, will be the next superintendent of Howard County schools, the school board announced yesterday.

O'Rourke, who heads the Pittsford Central School District near Rochester, N.Y., will replace Michael E. Hickey, who is leaving the post after 16 years to become a professor at Towson University.

O'Rourke accepted the board's offer Thursday and signed a four-year contract for $180,000 per year.

O'Rourke would be the state's third-highest-paid superintendent, behind Montgomery County and Baltimore City. He will take office July 1.

At an announcement at the Board of Education, O'Rourke said he would bring to the district an intense focus on instruction and encourage partnerships and collaboration.

"While you've been watching me, I've been watching you," O'Rourke said, to laughter from the audience. "Everything indicates to me a tremendously receptive environment."

O'Rourke, 55, was one of two finalists for the job.

The other was David E. Sawyer, superintendent of Brevard County schools near Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Board chairwoman Sandra H. French said the board decided to hire O'Rourke because of his energy, enthusiasm and excitement about education.

"The chemistry is right," French said. "John has captivated the board and the community."

O'Rourke and Sawyer visited the school district for two days last month. After O'Rourke's visit, French said, parents, teachers and community members called board members and wrote letters saying how much they liked him.

They appreciated "his sincerity in listening, his responses to questions and concerns and his unwillingness to be satisfied," French said.

French said the board voted unanimously Jan. 26 in executive session to offer the job to O'Rourke.

French, board member Karen B. Campbell and Associate Superintendent Sydney Cousin visited the 5,800-student Pittsford school district on Wednesday and Thursday to meet with O'Rourke's current board members, administrators, parent/teacher organization leaders and students.

The school district where O'Rourke has been superintendent for the last eight years is considerably different from Howard County -- nearly seven times smaller and far less diverse, both racially and socioeconomically.

Considering those differences, some in the community have expressed concern about the learning curve O'Rourke will be faced with and whether his skills in Pittsford would easily transfer.

French said the board was confident O'Rourke would rise to the challenge.

"For anybody to get in to any new job, it takes at least six months to really feel comfortable," French said. "If he's going to start studying now, he might hit the ground running in July."

O'Rourke said his leadership is guided by three questions: What do we want for our children and community? How will we provide it? How will we know that we've done it well?

"Those are questions that have been part of my professional life for over 30 years," O'Rourke said. "Those are not questions that will result in answers that will ever be chiseled into concrete. This is a dynamic process. Things change."

O'Rourke told those in attendance at yesterday's meeting that he planned to respect Howard County traditions and the legacy Hickey leaves behind. But he said he would make whatever changes are necessary to keep the school district on top.

"I promise a very dynamic administration in keeping with those dynamic questions," he said.

He also said issues of diversity and equity would be some of the first he tackles when he starts work July 1.

"I'm already making contact with some significant people," O'Rourke said, mentioning Howard County NAACP education chairwoman Natalie Woodson and county council members Vernon Gray and Mary Lorsung.

"I'm going to have them take me by the hand into their neighborhoods, their districts, their organizations and help me make an entry," O'Rourke said. "I know those are important issues."

O'Rourke would be Howard County's 13th superintendent.

"This is a glorious day for [me]," O'Rourke said.

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