A suburban Rochester, N.Y., school superintendent and the superintendent of a central Florida school district, who served as a Fairfax schools administrator in the 1980s, are the two finalists for the Howard County schools chief job, school board officials said yesterday.

After a year-long search, Board of Education officials named their top candidates to lead the 43,000-student Howard County district. They are: John R. O'Rourke, 55, the superintendent of Pittsford Central School District in Pittsford, N.Y., and David E. Sawyer, 53, superintendent of Brevard County public schools in Viera, Fla.

School officials said the administrators were culled from a list of six finalists, none from within the Howard County school system.

"They are highly successful, come from high-performing districts and look at Howard County as an incredible opportunity," said board member Stephen C. Bounds.

Howard school board members have said they are seeking a successor to retiring superintendent Michael E. Hickey who has experience in the classroom, in drafting budgets and in dealing with a diverse population.

To some degree, both men share those qualifications.

O'Rourke leads a district that has only 5,800 students and skews slightly higher in income and percentage of white students than Howard. Educators and parents in Pittsford said O'Rourke is well-regarded for involving the community, an affluent and educated area, in school matters.

O'Rourke, who was named National Superintendent of the Year in 1997 and earns $135,000 a year, said he would take the same approach in addressing Howard residents' concerns about inequities in services and facilities among the county's schools.

"The key to that is going to be an effective process for community participation--a process that itself is equitable and fair and encourages all people to participate," he said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Before his six years in Pittsford, O'Rourke served as superintendent for four years in Fulton, N.Y. He spent the first 12 years of his career as a school psychologist in the Fayetteville-Manlius School District, where he rose to assistant superintendent, working on the side as a landscape architect. O'Rourke is married with three grown children.

A primary concern in Howard County is managing its growth and the changes accompanying it: The student body has grown 7 percent a year, becoming more diverse in the process. In the past year, the county lost its claim to its No. 1 ranking on state exams for the first time and faced growing complaints about inequities among schools.

Throughout the search process, board members have emphasized that they want a superintendent who is willing to work with the current staff to improve academic achievement and management of schools. Both finalists said that suits their style.

"I'm acutely sensitive to matters of tradition and legacy and highly respectful of the substance of the community," O'Rourke said. "The last thing I would seek to do is turn that upside-down, impose a Pittsford model in Howard County," he said.

"I think when new leadership comes into a new district, especially one doing so well, it's important to take advantage of what's already there," said Sawyer, who makes $124,000 plus a 10,000 bonus each year he doesn't seek another job.

Sawyer leads a school system that is socioeconomically and racially similar to and, with 69,000 students, about 60 percent larger than Howard County's. Like Howard, Brevard's schools rank among the top in the state by most academic measures.

His primary accomplishment in Brevard, Sawyer said in an interview, was to restore financial health to the system. When he began, the district's cash reserves had dwindled to $500,000 and many schools were in disrepair. Now, the district has $10 million and has made most of the renovations.

"I believe that I have completed my responsibilities here," Sawyer said yesterday. "The district was in somewhat of a crisis when I came in."

Sawyer began his career in education as shop teacher in Virginia's Prince William County, and he became an assistant superintendent in Fairfax schools in 1980, where he oversaw the development of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. He is married, with two children.

Each candidate will visit Howard County next week for two days of interviews and meetings with the community--O'Rourke on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Sawyer on Thursday and Friday. The board will solicit the public's opinion on the candidates and expects to make its decision by the first week in February.

Hickey is paid $148,000 under his contract, and while board members have said they will negotiate salary with their top choice, they will not agree to such generous compensation as Montgomery County gave its new superintendent, Jerry D. Weast. His package is worth almost $300,000 a year, with benefits.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

CAPTION: John R. O'Rourke, left, superintendent in Pittsford, N.Y., and David E. Sawyer, superintendent in Viera, Fla., are finalists to lead Howard County schools.