BROOKSVILLE — One day last January, Fox Chapel Middle School principal Barbara Kidder grabbed her ringing cell phone and heard the voice of her school secretary.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt had arrived for an impromptu visit, the secretary said. Kidder, who had been at the district office in Brooksville, rushed back to her Spring Hill campus.
By the time Kidder arrived, Blavatt had thoroughly charmed the front office workers, chatting with them and even helping out for a while.
"He just started answering phones," Kidder said. "Now they love it when he comes."
That's a typical response to Blavatt, an affable leader with a self-deprecating sense of humor who has mastered the art of making people feel at ease. He achieved the same feat last year with his future bosses, the School Board members who would pick him out of a field of six finalists that included two seasoned internal candidates.
The board couldn't ignore Blavatt's resume, especially his most recent post: a dozen years as superintendent in Boone County, Ky. — a rare feat of longevity for a chief school executive. His sense of humor felt like fresh air after two years of former superintendent Wayne Alexander's serious demeanor that many found intimidating.
Last week marked Blavatt's first year on the job. Principals and other district staffers say he has backed up his charm with substance, delegating tasks and inspiring a collegial environment that had waned under Alexander. Parents say he's generally kept his vow to be accessible.
In Alexander, the district had a first-time superintendent seeking to set a tone for his career as a chief executive. Blavatt, 64, came out of retirement because he missed the job, but that doesn't mean he's coasting.
"He's a tough taskmaster," said facilities director Bo Bavota. "If he wants something and you have a deadline, he holds your feet to the fire, and that's a good thing. He sets the bar high, and he sets the bar at the same level for himself."
Blavatt said the district is better now than it was a year ago. Student performance continues to improve, morale has rebounded and the district is poised to make progress with the right leadership, he said.
"When I came on board last April, there wasn't a clear focus. We were all over the place," Blavatt said. "There wasn't management taking place in individual departments which held people accountable. What I take direct credit for is setting up a mission for this district and an untiring desire to see it happen at the schools, and holding people accountable."
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Though still smarting some from Alexander's often tumultuous tenure, Hernando was hardly a district in crisis when Blavatt arrived.
Student scores in general were already trending upward. Nearly all schools had earned an A or B in the state's accountability system based on student test scores, and the district had a B grade. Talks with the unions for the teachers and noninstructional employees had generally been cordial.
But there were some serious issues for Blavatt to tackle. He was a newcomer to a state poised to enact sweeping education reform, and he had to learn the needs of 22 campuses and their roughly 23,000 students
Two high schools, Hernando and Central, were under state oversight to improve their D grades. Weeki Wachee High School was set to open that fall, and a new K-8 school meant a shift of attendance boundaries. Spurred by the Race to the Top grant, district officials were negotiating with the teachers union on a new evaluation to tie teacher pay to student performance. And the district had to meet strict class-size requirements or face fines from the state.
Looming above it all was the specter of deep cuts of state and federal funds that had plugged revenue holes left by plummeting property values.
Blavatt fostered a collaborative approach from the start, said assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson, who was one of the two in-house finalists.
"He adapts to whatever the situation is," Jackson said.
Parents generally praised how Blavatt handled the rezoning process, holding two public meetings and fixing what he acknowledged was a mistake in the case of one neighborhood.
A staunch advocate of technology, Blavatt pushed for the purchase of Web-based software that allows teachers to assess a student's grasp of material and create a learning plan to foster improvement.
Principals are working together like they haven't since the tenure of Alexander's predecessor, Wendy Tellone, said Brooksville Elementary principal Mary LeDoux.
"I think the fear factor being gone is huge," she said. "I have never been in a situation where I can call (a superintendent's) direct line and say, 'I need help,' and I can do that. And he isn't just talk. He sends people to help us."
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Since Blavatt arrived, the first 15 minutes or so of the School Board's regular meetings have become feel-good affairs.
He asked high school JROTC members to present the colors, and all schools now take turns sending students to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Then a short video plays showcasing that month's winner of the HEROES award, or Hernando Educator Reaching Out to Every Student.
"To bring us back to what we're all about," he said.
But the board's afternoon workshops are where policy issues are hashed out, and Blavatt has proven adept at bringing clear recommendations and reining in board members when they drift off topic during discussion.
Blavatt says he noticed right away a reluctance on the part of some board members to "allow the superintendent to be the CEO of the school district." The fact that board members are paid seems to "blur the line" between the board that sets the polices and the superintendent who brings recommendations and runs the daily operations, he said.
Blavatt must understand the board is not there simply to rubber-stamp his recommendations, said Sandra Nicholson, the longest-serving member on the board when Blavatt was hired. Nicholson, who left in November after a tight race, offered Blavatt a tip early in his tenure.
Members of other boards might "just bob their heads," Nicholson said. "With our board, that just wasn't going to happen. We're going to discuss things and we may or may not agree."
The board approved Blavatt's new bell schedule, saving about $1 million, but shot down his proposal to add a second assistant superintendent as well as his plea to increase the tax rate by 25 cents for every $1,000 of taxable property value to bolster the operating fund.
Blavatt is doing a good job so far, said board member Cynthia Moore, who replaced Nicholson. When Moore talks to parents and teachers, she said, the feedback has generally been positive. Blavatt returns calls, they say, and morale of teachers and parents alike has improved.
"He's always been responsive to us," said Cindy Gustafson, founder and board member of Partners Allied for Gifted Education Support, a local group that has advocated for the district's Quest Gifted Center housed at Challenger K-8.
Blavatt pushes student involvement, forming a Student Advisory Council that meets with him regularly. The council was key in Blavatt's pending proposal to add a student representative to the School Board.
"If it's something that makes sense and will be beneficial, he'll do anything to help you get it," said Sydney Monahan, an 18-year-old senior at Springstead High and a council member.
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Not everyone considers Blavatt to be responsive.
Cindy Hall of Weeki Wachee says she tried to convince him that the district's dual enrollment policies and procedures needed improvement. She lobbied unsuccessfully for a class schedule at Central High that would better accommodate dual-enrolled students like her son, who attends courses at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
"I have found him to be less than gracious," Hall said. "If he immediately takes a dislike to you, he is not open to comments that really are best for the children."
Blavatt said district has addressed some of the dual-enrollment issues Hall raised.
"What's unfortunate sometimes is your perspective is somewhat myopic when it only involves your child or a few other kids," he said. "When you're superintendent, you have to think of all the kids."
Board member Dianne Bonfield declined last week to comment extensively on Blavatt's performance, saying she wanted to wait until his annual evaluation process, which begins on Tuesday.
"I think we've had a much less turbulent time," Bonfield said. "But now the boat's rocking with the financial situation."
It was a tough budget that helped doom Alexander. He lost the support of the teachers union after he stuck to recommendations to cut personnel even when the financial situation seemed less dire than initially thought.
Blavatt recently asked principals to consider what they could get by without if their personnel allocations were cut by 10 percent. He will almost certainly recommend that the teachers union forgo automatic step raises built into the contract. And he has often warned that parents need to be prepared for unpopular moves like fees for sports and other extracurricular activities and cuts to bus service for students who live within 2 miles of school.
But he has also promised results, offering to tie part of his $130,000 base salary on student test scores and other benchmarks.
Teachers are uneasy but for now they have measured confidence in Blavatt, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.
"The last 12 months shows us there seems to be a foundation for the next 12 weeks," Vitalo said. "Now we'll see if it'll hold."
Blavatt said he expects shifting political winds, a force all the more uncertain as Gov. Rick Scott prepares to appoint a fifth board member to replace Pat Fagan, who resigned last month.
"I don't know if the hurricane has reached us yet, but I've managed to stay pretty stable and keep the course," he said. "The ship's heading where we want to be."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.