As NASA engineers and scientists rushed to explore the heavens in the 1960s, the central Florida county where much of the effort was focused rushed to build schools for their children--schools like Apollo Elementary and Astronaut High.

By the time David E. Sawyer--who interviews today as one of two finalists for the Howard County superintendency--took over in 1992, many of Brevard County's schools were a quarter-century old and showing frustrating signs of what Sawyer calls their "rubber bands and chewing gum" construction.

Eight of the 9 million square feet of roofing was leaking. The coastal moisture had mildewed carpets, rotted walls, shorted light fixtures.

The system was nearly bankrupt, but Sawyer immediately set out to make repairs, by slowing salary increases, borrowing from future revenue and aggressively seeking state money.

In six years, he oversaw $200 million in renovations and built $100 million worth of schools--while enriching the system's cash reserves in the process. Florida thoroughly audited the system's management and finances last year and declared that Brevard, with 69,000 students, met more criteria for efficiency than any other school system in the state.

"When he came here, he inherited a school district that was just a mess," said school board member Janice Kershaw. "We had facilities that were crumbling and unhealthy. He's turned that around."

Sawyer, 53, who spent two years as an industrial arts teacher in Virginia before working as an education professor and then an administrator, is best known for the sorts of physical plant and fiscal improvements he made in Brevard.

People who have worked with him say Sawyer is still working on improving academics. What he doesn't know, they say, he learns from the excellent people he hires.

"He is a person who has a grasp on all the areas of education," said Fran Baer, president of the Brevard Federation of Teachers. "And I think he has grown into a superintendent who knows how to lead a school system."

For proof of his academic accomplishments, Sawyer said, look at Fairfax County's highly regarded Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. As assistant superintendent of county schools throughout the 1980s, he oversaw the development of the school.

Or look at Brevard. The county, along the Atlantic, east of Orlando, has a student body far more transient and poor than Howard County's. Still, its standardized test scores are close to the top in the state and rising.

Partly because of mandates from the state and partly because of Sawyer's own businesslike approach to accountability, each Brevard school is rated on a several-point plan that assesses test scores and qualities such as cleanliness, extracurricular activities and parental presence. High-ranking schools get a small monetary bonus and a special flag to fly.

Brevard teachers, too, are rewarded for improvement: In an optional pay-for-performance plan, teachers can receive bonuses for meeting goals they set to increase student achievement.

Sawyer, who was named Florida Superintendent of the Year for 1998, is described as direct, demanding and a very energetic "change agent."

Howard County, with 43,000 students, has had only three superintendents in 51 years, and residents attribute much of the system's success to its stability of leadership. The Board of Education is asking that the new superintendent promise to stay through at least two four-year contracts.

But Sawyer, typical of many superintendents across the country, does not have a history of staying put. He left the 30-school Pickens County, S.C., district--and a new contract--after three years.

"I didn't like it," he said. "I thought all along I was better suited to a large district."

He was hired to replace an ousted, longtime superintendent in the 28-school Clovis district in central California. He left after 30 uneasy months and also after the board that had hired him was voted out.

Earlier in his Brevard tenure, he applied for jobs in Colorado and Tennessee. Now that eight of the nine Brevard school board members who hired him have left, he told the board he didn't want his contract renegotiated and began looking for a new job in Howard and elsewhere.

Sawyer, who is married with two grown children, said that this time, he has no wanderlust. It would be the first time he would enter a system that's not politically turbulent. And besides, he said, "I've never been asked by a board to stay 10 years."

Staff writer Raja Mishra contributed to this report.

CAPTION: David E. Sawyer interviews today for the superintendent's job in Howard.