BROOKSVILLE — Superintendent Bryan Blavatt's office at school district headquarters on U.S. 41 is adorned with the mementos of his lengthy career in education.
In one corner sits a gleaming silver shovel from the ground breaking of a high school stadium in Maryland that bears his name. A bobblehead figurine in his likeness — a gift from an elementary school in Kentucky — stands guard on a shelf behind his desk.
Now Blavatt, 64, is five months into his latest — and probably final — professional chapter, this one as chief executive for the Hernando County schools. As he prepared for Monday's opening of the 2010-11 school year, the Times invited him to sit down last week and talk about the district's strengths and weaknesses, his relationship with the School Board, his goals for the future, new school start times and even the Weeki Wachee mermaids.
So how would you characterize your first five months on the job?
Well, it's been interesting, to say the least. You know, this is really a good district, and I recognized that when I went through the interview process, and the more that I'm here, there are a lot of positive things that I see more than I even recognized. But as is the case with many things, there also some downsides that I'm recognizing that I didn't at first blush.
Let's talk about the top assets first.
There's no question the top assets are the teachers and the students. We have excellent, excellent teachers. In my experience in 40 years, I don't think I've seen as many good teachers as we have here in Hernando County. And we have excellent school administrators and staff.
One of the greatest attributes has to be the fact that we have a strong degree of community support. I've been really pleased with the support we've gotten from the chamber of commerce, the various service groups, Rotary, Kiwanis, and their willingness to partner with the school district. It just seems to me that having this unified approach in doing what's best for the kids is going to have tremendous benefits.
What about top areas that need improvement?
We obviously need to address the economic situation as far as funding from the state and their degree of responsibility for the costs. We've begun to address the other questions that we're seriously understaffed in the central office area. The reorganization is a step forward in that area, and we did that effectively, actually decreasing the budget slightly.
We have to continue to look at the structure of our schools, with the new redistricting, with the creation of the new K-8 school (in Weeki Wachee). That will give us an opportunity to clean up boundaries. I certainly can empathize with parents who are in close proximity to a school … but they aren't able to go to that school.
The other big concern that I have is becoming more and more of a data-driven district that infuses a high level of accountability to all of our staff for student performance. That's a whole culture. We've got to find a way to measure how we're doing and continually set the bar higher. We're an A district, but … I'm really not going to be comfortable until all of our schools are A schools and we meet (adequate yearly progress requirements) in all of our schools. When that happens, maybe I'll consider retiring again.
Some have said there are "haves" and "have-nots" among the schools in the district. Your thoughts?
My first impression was that was a serious problem with the schools. But I can unequivocally say after visiting the schools that that's not necessarily the case, that there are good things and effective things going on in all the schools, and there are good kids and good teachers in all of the schools.
Yes, there is some disparity when one looks at the demographics of it. But the truth is every one of our schools has a unique flair, their own personality, and they have strong teachers there. We can do more to try and dispel some of the demographic separations, and the redistricting committee is looking at it. Every school has to be recognized for what it does and the good students that are there, and not dwelling on what we don't have.
You can be pretty assertive during School Board workshops, trying to bring board members back on track when they get off topic and making sure they offer clear direction to you and the staff. How would you rate your performance in that respect and your relationship with the board so far?
It's one of those things with the board of education that grows and evolves. Certainly the upcoming election will have its impact one way or another. I've gotten a commitment from board members to receive the master board training (from the Florida School Boards Association) for both the superintendent and board members starting after the election. I think that's critical.
I think there is in Hernando County, and has been historically … kind of a muddling of the role of the superintendent as compared to the role of the board of education. As I've said to (board members), I made a commitment to do what's necessary in this school district to see us move ahead, as our mission statement says, to do what's best for kids. But by the same token, I have to have the freedom to take that step forward without having to backtrack and go over it. In school districts that are successful, there are clear-cut responsibilities that the board carries out and the superintendent carries out, and with the situation that exists today we can't duplicate our efforts. We just don't have time and energy to do that.
You recommended that the board approve a quarter-mill property tax increase because the budget was looking to be deep in the red, and then suddenly it was balanced. Can you explain how that happened to a skeptical public disdainful of tax increases?
There are several reasons. One was when I came in April, one of the things I immediately did was recommend we not fill positions immediately to save some money in that area. That helped. We didn't really see the difference until we started to look at what was left from this past year's budget.
We also put in a significant amount of money for fuel costs that, thank God, didn't materialize. Fuel prices stayed down; our fuel consumption was fairly low. Of course the decision to work with the transportation division and look at school hours and changes there provided additional funds, and all these came last minute. We made it, fortunately, with cosmetic cuts this year. It's not going to happen next year.
How will the district cope next year with the loss of stimulus funds and what is expected be a tough budget?
One of the things I think we have to do is to work and look at an actual strategy or plan for declining economies, because I don't think it's going to stop. This is going to be a three- or four-year period, at least, and we have to have a long-term strategy so that every year instead of looking at where we can cut or making drastic changes, that we look over a three-year or four-year period on how we're going to meet the economy. Forecasting ahead of the game is a lot better than being reactive as we had to this year.
You've talked about being proactive instead of reactive in other areas, too. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
As we look at rezoning and opening of schools … give people lead time, looking at phasing it in over a period of time so community members and parents have a strong understanding of what the long-range plan is.
Every area of this school district should have a five-year strategic plan. We certainly do for building and maintenance, plant operations, food services and support areas. They need to plan years in advance. We need to do the same thing instructionally, with FCAT going wherever it goes. We've done a real good job in planning for class-size reduction, but how do we move from here?
We've had a pretty active decade as far as school construction. We opened Weeki Wachee High last week, and a K-8 is under construction next door. Are we now able to take a breather on construction?
Absolutely. And I think we need to do. First of all, our bonding capacity is seriously diminished. We're looking into qualified zone academy bonds, a pot of money available within every state, for renovation projects. I think we now need to look at some of our schools that exist that, in fact, could be renovated and expanded to take care of the growth or stabilize growth and meet some of the requirements of the class size. I don't think we're going to have a new building for a while.
What will be the real-world impact for parents and students this year as the district works to meet class-size requirements?
Not a lot, because we've been making a concerted effort, and I think parents won't see much change.
Are double classes a concern?
Well, we have them. At this point, they won't see much change there. We'll continue to use them as we have in the past.
What are a few of your other top priorities moving forward?
Obviously, I want to see continuing improvement in instruction and teaching and learning and student performance. The things I'm going to be measuring are our rate of graduation but, more specifically, what are these kids doing after they graduate? We want to see some data post-graduation.
I'm going to be looking at AP scores and how students perform on Advanced Placement and higher-level courses. I'm going to be looking at our retention rate at lower levels. And these are all going to be measured in the evaluation process for principals.
We'll be talking about the lowest quartile of students and how they're performing and what remediation we're providing. If you look and drill down at our scores … the real concern lies with the subgroups that are in the bottom quartile, so a lot of energy is going to be directed toward that.
What is your outlook for the two struggling high schools, Central and Hernando?
I'm tremendously encouraged. Last year there was some marked advancement at both places, and I think that the leadership and the folks that are there are doing a really, really good job to move that forward.
I have no hesitation that these schools will show more even improvement as we move into the school year. With the 1003(g) grant and other things, we're going to see real positive results.
You mentioned during your job interview with the board that you're willing to tie your own pay to student performance. Are you still committed to that?
Absolutely. Once we get these baselines and levels and I go into my second year, I'm more than willing to sit with the board and say let's set measurable standards of performance. I should be held accountable for students' performance. That's what you hired me for. But give me the freedom to do what I need to do. I'll take accountability, just like teachers will take accountability and principals will take accountability, but let me control it. Let me control my job.
Have you been a little bit leery to do that, considering the experience we had with our last superintendent?
No. One of things I said at my kickoff activity is it's extremely important for everyone in Hernando County that's involved with the district to put a fork in that and call it done, and move on. We all need to look to the future and not to the past. The future is very positive.
How are you and your family settling in?
It's great. My son is in the area now. He's going to be a school administrator in (Hillsborough), and he's very excited. He's going to be an assistant principal — same thing he did in Ohio. My daughter is still up in the Cincinnati area, but we're hopeful over the next year she'll be able to make that move and we'll have her here.
Seen a mermaid show yet?
I have. Unfortunately, the day I saw the mermaid show was the day that they had the guy from blue-collar comedy.
Larry the Cable Guy?
Larry the Cable Guy. He just didn't quite cut it for me as a mermaid. I thought based on his physique, I could have been a mermaid. That kind of distorted my joy of the mermaid show. I've gotten over that trauma.
Have you had a hard time keeping your open-phone, open-door policy?
It's been hard. I've stuck to it, and I'm feeling really good about it, but what I didn't recognize in the year and a half that I had been out of the superintendency is the volume of e-mails. I mean, I'm used to phone calls. I'll walk away from my desk and in an hour I'll have 45 e-mails.
It's something I can't waiver on. I believe it to be an important aspect. I have managed to do it. But (have) the recognition that I'm CEO of a school district with 23,000 students, 3,500 hundred employees and 23 different buildings. Certainly I will get back to them, but in many cases if they're calling for me because they want me to change the response they got from a principal or somebody on staff, I can't always get back to them as quickly as they want, and I may not be the one they want to talk to that in that respect.
Any word to parents and families who will be dealing with the reality of a new bell schedule come Monday?
First, I would caution them to understand that the first week of school and transportation is always difficult, even when we did it the way we used to do it, and there are going to be glitches and problems, and we'll address them.
But the second is to understand this decision was made to do what's best for kids. It's twofold. One is, besides the significant savings, every bit of research indicates older kids don't function as well in the morning as the younger children, so let's maximize the capabilities of the young children.
The other part is, you're not seeing major changes. We tried to make it minimal. Sometimes what is best for all of the children in Hernando County doesn't articulate down to what's best for you and your child. Sometimes it is an inconvenience and sometimes it does make it difficult, and I really do regret that, but I'm entrusted to do what's best for the children.
Any final words to students, parents and staff as we begin a new year?
Every new year is an opportunity for students to have great success and do better than they did last year. No matter what, there's always room for improvement, and the neat thing about the beginning of the school year is it's fresh as the paint in the buildings.
I think we don't recognize the fact that youngsters have a chance for success with a clean slate every year and they should take advantage of it. You can reinvent yourself and go about it anyway you want.