John O'Rourke runs a school system in Upstate New York, where every big project is put to a vote. A year ago, O'Rourke and his board were convinced the Pittsford Central School District needed $57 million to build a school and renovate old ones, but the voters weren't.
A bond proposal failed in a referendum, 55 percent to 45 percent. So O'Rourke--who comes to Howard County today as one of two finalists to be the next superintendent--did what those around him say he does best: reach out.
He sat in meeting after meeting and listened to the many opponents of the plan, which would turn one of the district's two high schools, a 50-year-old building set prominently in the middle of the village, into a middle school and build a high school on the outskirts.
Then he launched a massive public relations effort--including weekly mailings to every home--to answer the questions he had heard.
O'Rourke and his staff explained how the school system could save money by installing more energy-efficient windows, roofs and boilers. Why middle-schoolers would be better off in two schools of 700 students than one of 1,400.
How there's no affordable space to build another high school in the village. How land for the new school would not take away from the community's preserved green space, because it had been bought by the school board 30 years earlier specifically as a future school site.
"We were neither trying to sell a proposal nor sell a particular idea," said Assistant Superintendent Lee Johnson. "What we wanted to do was educate every person in the community so they could make an informed decision. That was John O'Rourke's mode of operation throughout the entire process, and it worked."
In December, when the bond issue was up again, twice as many people showed up to vote than in January--possibly the highest turnout for a local election in Pittsford. The bond issue passed by the same margin it lost the previous time--and with $5 million more tacked on.
Approval of the bond issue is what many people say is O'Rourke's greatest achievement in Pittsford. His answer is different. He says he is proudest of creating more rigorous academic standards, establishing partnerships with businesses, increasing the share of the education budget that goes toward instruction, and conducting satisfaction surveys of staff members, parents and students--and heeding the results.
The suburban Rochester district is small, compared with Howard's 43,000-student school system. The Pittsford district has 5,800 students in five elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools. Pittsford families are affluent. Students score near the top on standardized tests, and nearly all--95 percent--go on to college.
In a district that starts out so far ahead, it may be hard for a leader to distinguish himself by pushing it further. But O'Rourke has, according to those who have watched him.
In 1997, he was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. The year before, Pittsford schools received the New York State Governor's Excelsior Award for Quality (now called the Empire State Advantage), an honor given each year to those private- or public-sector institutions that best promote "continuous improvement."
Since O'Rourke arrived in Pittsford six years ago, "continuous improvement" has meant "our trend lines have shown growth in virtually every area," Johnson said. The indicators--test scores, customer satisfaction surveys--keep getting better, he said.
The district's direction--everything from strategic goals to the bond referendum--is guided by a planning team that includes not only O'Rourke and school board members but also parents, teachers and support staff members.
He meets regularly with advisory boards of students, of parents, of assistant principals.
"Nothing gets done around here that isn't discussed with all the constituency groups involved," said Linda Monte, president of Pittsford's PTSA.
O'Rourke, 55, is a lifelong New Yorker who is married with three grown children. He was superintendent in the working-class city of Fulton, N.Y., and before that rose through the ranks of a suburban Syracuse district.
He said he is happy in Pittsford and didn't think about leaving until the firm conducting Howard County's search approached him. At the same time, as he pursues a chance to replace a 16-year superintendent in a system that values longevity, he insists he is ready to become a Marylander and to lead what he calls an "outstanding" system.
"I'm absolutely ready to stick around," O'Rourke said. "My commitment is total."
CAPTION: John O'Rourke has received national recognition as an educator.