Superintendent’s tough calls draw mixed response

DAVID SAWYER, superintendent of Brevard County schools, reads to first-graders at Cambridge Elementary School in Cocoa, Florida.

By Chris Evans / FLORIDA TODAY

Brevard County Superintendent David Sawyer leaned forward, his eyes intent on the first-grader in front of him. He’d just put down his copy of the book “Curious George Goes to the Aquarium.”

Sawyer couldn’t seem to stop smiling.

“Alyssa wrote a story about her dog,” Sawyer said, looking at 7-year-old Alyssa Colbert, one of about 20 first­graders gathered around him at Cambridge Elementary School in Cocoa. “What’s your dog’s name?”

The child, unaccustomed to having the school district’s top administrator ask about her home life, put a hand over one eye, looked away and mumbled, “I don’t know.”

“That’s a great name for a dog, ‘I Don’t Know,'”  Sawyer said.  “Come here, I Don’t Know. Roll over, I Don’t Know.” The girl giggled.

Few people, save some lucky first-graders, have seen this side of Sawyer.

Considered a high-profile leader with a growing list of accomplishments in Brevard schools, Sawyer remains unable to gain the trust of many around him, a problem some say is his greatest challenge as he enters his second year on the job.

Since he came to Brevard a little more than a year ago, Sawyer—often described as a reserved, private man—sometimes has been associated with less-caring images.

Mention his name and people are likely to think of teachers angry about prolonged contract negotiations, of aging schools contaminated by mold or of an upcoming $350 million bond referendum that could cost residents $100 a year more in taxes.

These issues, which were waiting for Sawyer when he came to Brevard in January 1994, often have overshadowed the superintendent’s accomplishments, supporters say.

Those include the fact that:

  • Sawyer settled the teachers’ nearly 12-month contract dispute, rejecting many of the union’s demands. He since has worked to improve communications with teachers and to speed up the next round of contract talks.
  • He formed a committee to study environmental problems and reorganized school custodial crews. Some parents had remov­ed their children from schools where moldy walls frightened them into thinking students might suffer severe allergy problems.
  • He put together the bond issue, which is drawing praise from principals, teachers and parents who say it is the district’s only hope for dealing with over­crowded and aging buildings.

“I think that I’ve had a pretty good experience. I think that is a result of our better relationships, better communication. We’ve done a lot of things to try to involve as many people as we can,” said Sawyer.

Despite those efforts, Sawyer realizes he has more to do.

sawyer-2-big-quoteAmong his biggest challenges is overcoming a bad image, some parents and educators say. These people see Sawyer not as a kind leader, but as a cold authoritarian who doesn’t care enough about schools and children.

Supporters vehemently disagree. For example, all five School Board members say they give Sawyer their full support, calling him a warm, high-profile, hard-working leader.

Vista Boyland, a member of the district’s Capital Outlay Committee that decides how to spend money for building projects, described the duality this way:

“He had an enormous job when he came here. It’s going to take time. It’s a tough job, and he doesn’t get enough credit. There are some people who think he is an archangel, and others think he is the devil incarnate,” she said.

She then added something both supporters and detractors say: “I know he is concerned about doing what is best for the district.”

Sawyer knows he has made some people unhappy. That, he said, is something he cannot help.

“Progressive, exciting, hard­working school districts that are trying to make a difference will typically make people angry be­ cause you certainly cannot please everybody,” Sawyer said.

“I assume no responsibility for making people happy. My respon­sibility is to make good decisions. And I firmly believe that good decisions make the most people happy in the long run.”

Presiding at a meeting with the district’s 12 top staff members, sawyer-3-board-commentsSawyer doesn’t smile quite as broadly as he does with a first­-grade class. But he does seem to be enjoying his job.

He leaned back as his team reported on maintenance concerns, year-round schooling and reaction to the rally to draw backing for the bond referendum.
The issues are complex and, in some cases, dire, such as when one supervisor said he would be spending $500,000 immediately to fix wall damage at Eau Gallie High School in Melbourne.

But throughout the meeting the tone remained light – profes­ sional, but not bogged down. Supervisors joked with one anoth­er, and they bantered back and forth when they disagreed.

The bond issue, intended to gain the district $350 million to build five new schools and renovate 39 schools, came up a half­dozen times during the meeting.

Sawyer, who one official said had been spending 70 percent of his time on the referendum, told staff members he is pleased with their progress.

The rally drew 1,200 and was a success. And 14 of 16 area munici­pal governments have been contacted to discuss the issue.

Despite the fact the county commission decided not to en­dorse the referendum, Sawyer says almost everyone else is coming together nicely.

“The taxpayers out there are going to be able to make a responsible decision,” he said.

Sawyer, 49, became the central figure in Brevard schools on Nov. 23, 1993, when the School Board voted 3-2 to hire him. He was selected to replace outgoing Superintendent Abe Collinsworth.

Collinsworth left the district under fire. For the previous two years, he had battled with some board members over his loose management style and problems with state education officials.

Collinsworth had been superin­tendent since 1989, replacing Lloyd Soughers, who also was ousted by the board. Soughers was described by some board members as too autocratic.

Sawyer walked in without the board’s full support, but he said that the board members who were against him have left since, and all current members back him.

For Sawyer, who came to Brevard from the 27,000,-Student Clovis, Calif., School District, the move to a district with almost 65,000 students was a natural progression in a 26-year career that had included alternating stints as an administrator and teacher.

“I knew it was a good school system,” Sawyer said. “It had high-performance students. It had a very supportive community. And I knew it was undergoing some growing pains.

“So when I came and checked the district out and saw the kind of challenges they had—primarily facilities and finance—which I believe to be two of my strong suits, I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’”

Long days

Sawyer estimates he spends 60 to 70 hours a week on the job. His wife said that doesn’t leave him much time for a personal life.

“He’s basically on call all the time. When we do find time to get to do things together, we like to go out to eat or go to the movies or meet with friends,” she said.

Sawyer’s hobbies are wood­working—a holdover from his early days as a shop teacher—and, recently, sailing.

“No noise on a sailboat,” he said. “That’s what makes it great. It’s a very relaxing experience.”

Sawyer’s two sons are grown, but he and Joyce keep in close contact with Gregory, 25, a biologist in California, and Bruce, 23, an education student at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Although Sawyer has had two instances of atrial fibrillation, or irregular heartbeat, since coming to Brevard, he considers himself to be in good health. He said the affliction does not bother him.

“It’s not life-threatening. Lots of people walk around with it.”

Sawyer gets up each day at 5:30 or 6 a.m., usually after eight hours sleep. He and Joyce, his wife of 28 years, walk three miles and then have breakfast together.

Maybe two times a week, we’ll go somewhere for breakfast,” he said. “Our favorite haunt is the

Waffle House on 520. We enjoy the people there, and we like a waffle every now and then. I’ll probably have a bowl of grits with my waffle, then it’s off to the races.”

sawyer-4-employee-commentsSawyer’s personal race on the job has been an exercise in catching up.

He entered his position as an outsider, both to the school system and Brevard. Because of that, he has had to immerse himself in the community.

To that end, Sawyer meets with police chiefs and chambers of commerce. He participates in walkathons and Boy Scout events. He attends faculty meetings twice a week. He reads to first-graders.

“The man works 20 hours a day,” said Lynn Demetriades, a School Board member who voted to hire him. “He is out in the schools. He is out seeing  the faculty. … That is important.”

The effort has impressed some county leaders.

“I believe he is visible and accessible to the public,” said Charles Hoyman, Jr., chairman of the East Central Florida Economic Development Commission and head of a private group pushing for the bond referendum. “He is perceived as very knowledgeable, very concerned.”

Not everybody agrees.

The further people get from Sawyer’s inner circle, the fewer nice things they have to say.

Absalom Ferguson, who has two children at Mila Elementary on Merritt Island, said Sawyer and other administrators act arrogantly, as if the concerns of less-educated parents aren’t important.

“I’ve only had the opportunity to be in his presence once, but I’ve talked to several people, and we agree—I just don’t believe his interest is where it should be when it comes to public schools. It’s big money, big business he’s concerned about,” Ferguson said.

Sawyer meets such criticism head-on.

“It’s easy to be criticized when you keep fiscal issues on the front burner because people will say, ‘Well, he’s only interested in money. He is not interested in the kids,’” Sawyer said.

“I cannot separate those two, because if you don’t have the money, you can’t do a whole heck of a lot with the kids.”

Former School Board member Pat Manning understands why people feel uncomfortable around Sawyer. She has similar feelings—one of the main reasons she voted against him.

“He was cold, and be was aloof,” said Manning, who did not run again in 1994. “I was worried about his management style: dictatorial, from the top down. You have to build up that trust.”

Demetriades agrees that Sawyer is not the most effusive of people, but she wouldn’t call him cold. She prefers “reserved.”

Sawyer said he is concerned—but not overly—about how people perceive him.

“It’s human nature to want to be liked, but usually people who are described as being liked … are being described that way by people who have had the opportunity to get to know them more personally,” he said.

“When you are responsible in an organization as large as this, you obviously don’t have the opportunity to get to know (all) people personally.”

Sawyer’s visits to community and school functions are his way of letting people get to know him a little better. Board member Fran Pickett said such efforts eventually will win people over.

“To the public, because of his business side, it’s hard to see who he is,” Pickett said. “I think we wanted him to be businesslike, but when you are all businesslike, people think you don’t have a heart. People need to see more of his personal, human side.”

In some cases, his no-nonsense business side has served him well.

Sawyer came into the district during a turbulent time. The School Board had been at the standoff with the teachers’ union.

In March 1994, two months after taking the helm, Sawyer made one of those decisions that not everyone likes but that settled the contract dispute.

He did it by dismissing many of the union’s desires, including compensation time and discipline issues a federal arbitrator said should be approved.

“The teachers felt hurt and shocked,” said Fran Baer, president of the Brevard Federation of Teachers. “He had an opportunity to get the teachers on his side and to build that team and that trust that he didn’t elect to do. The scars are still there.”

Sawyer says he does not regret his actions. The decision was right financially and led to a contract the board could accept, he said.

“I think that there was sort of a hope, if you will, that I would come in and fix things, that somehow I would be able to generate the necessary funding, do whatever was needed to be done to stop the impasse quickly, but I wasn’t a savior in that respect at all,” he said.

Sawyer realized morale remained low. That’s why he pushed to get the next year’s contract settled before summer’s end.

Teachers have noticed Sawyer’s efforts to reconcile. Said Baer: “I do feel that he has made an effort. It is working, to the extent he remains open and listening to the concerns of teachers.

“And, of course, there is always another round of negotiations.”

Aging schools

Teacher negotiations, parent relations and most other school issues have recently taken a back seat to another issue, one that has all but monopolized Sawyer’s time since he arrived: aging, overcrowded schools.

Twenty-one elementary and secondary schools exceed 115 percent of capacity. Many of the schools have environmental problems like moisture intrusion, which allows mold to grow inside.

Both teachers and students have complained the conditions clogged their sinuses and drove their allergies wild.

Sawyer’s main hope for solving both problems is the $350 million bond referendum in May, which would add 2 mills to the property tax. That would mean the owner of a $75,000 home who takes the standard $25,000 homestead exemption would pay $564.60 in school property taxes, or $100 more than they pay now.

If the issue is not approved, Sawyer has said overcrowding might force him to impose year-­round schooling for some schools and drop the high schools’ mandatory seventh period, something parents also have protested.

“I don’t know whether the bond issue will be the kiss of death for him or the accolades,” Manning said.

Sawyer thinks the issue will pass: “You don’t have to walk into too many schools to realize we have to invest in our facilities, and that’s not counting the growth. I think the need is understood.”

Coupled with the bond is another, more potentially explosive topic: environmental problems.

􀀐This school year, Saturn Elementary in Cocoa didn’t open its library on the first day of classes because mold covered the books. In January, parents pulled more than 100 students from Fairglen Elementary in Cocoa because workers were removing asbestos.

Sawyer formed an environmental committee shortly after he arrived, but advocates of the committee say he offered it no guidance and little support.

“Dr. Sawyer has yet to allow us to go into the first school,” said Dave Gilton, a committee member with two children at Gemini Elementary in Melbourne Beach. “These are major issues that need to be dealt with. Parents are so close to being driven over the edge, to filing lawsuits.”

Sawyer insists the committee􀀢has produced results, such as setting environmental standards and goals of achieving better indoor air quality. Those issues, he said, were important to address before committee members toured schools.

“There’s always the potential of a lawsuit,” he said. “We’ll have to stand on our record. I’m not sure that the danger is there.  It’s more a comfort and discomfort issue. It’s more just not a good place to teach and learn.

Sawyer said little more can be done to address the problem without more money. That money, he said, will be available if the bond issue passes.

Looking forward

 This is review time for Sawyer. Tuesday, he handed evaluation forms to each School Board member. They are expected to assess his performance, then return the forms at an upcoming meeting.

“I’ll be anxious to see w􀀱at their opinions are,” Sawyer said. “There is so, so much that we are working on, that it is kind of hard to get an assessment.”

But the review almost certainly will be good. The board has few complaints. One member, Paula Veibl, said, “I don’t see any areas where Dr. Sawyer is lacking.”

If Sawyer continues to win that sort of praise, Brevard residents can expect him to be working for the district for a long time.

“I fully expect to be here until I retire,” he said. “The average tenure of a superintendent in a school district like this is about 28 months. That’s unfortunate because there’s no continuity.

“I’ve got a decade of service left in me, and I plan to be here.”

This story first appeared in Florida Today on Feb. 26, 1995.