BROOKSVILLE — If Hernando School Board members had selected the district's next superintendent based solely on the number of times a candidate made them laugh, Bryan Blavatt would have easily taken the post.
As it happens, a unanimous board on Wednesday did choose Blavatt, with members citing the 63-year-old's charm and wit in the previous day's interview.
But board members were clearly eager for a seasoned superintendent with a fresh perspective. They agreed Blavatt, who led the 18,000-student Boone County district in Kentucky for 12 years until retiring in 2008, has that and more.
"He's by far the most experienced of any (candidate) we've seen," board member John Sweeney said. "He has a track record of success. He's known as a great communicator in Kentucky. He's not going to have a bunker mentality. He's going to be accessible and that's what this community needs."
The board also united behind a second choice in case contract negotiations with their first pick falls through. Aaron K. Mackey, 61, served as superintendent for Princeton City Schools in Ohio from 2004 to 2008 and assistant superintendent district before that.
But negotiations with Blavatt went well and a contract is expected to come before the board at its next meeting Tuesday, Chairman Pat Fagan said later Wednesday. There will some contract points to discuss, but no apparent deal-breakers, Fagan said.
"He definitely wants to come to Hernando County," Fagan said.
Before heading into negotiations with Fagan and board attorney Paul Carland, Blavatt said he was excited not only for the opportunity, but by the board's unanimity.
"That's critical," he said. "If a board is united in their feelings, it makes the job much easier. I'm very pleased."
Board members said the decision was difficult because of the quality of the finalists, who included interim superintendent Sonya Jackson; Hernando High principal Ken Pritz; Gregory Adkins, the 45-year-old chief human resources officer for Lee County schools; and John Phillips, a former associate superintendent for Charleston County Schools in South Carolina.
Sweeney, Fagan, and board members Sandra Nicholson and Dianne Bonfield had the same three external candidates for their top three choices: Blavatt, Mackey and Adkins.
After listing Mackey and Blavatt as tied for her top choice during the first round of deliberations Wednesday, Nicholson addressed the criticism that is sure to come after the often tumultuous tenure of Wayne Alexander. Alexander came from Connecticut and was pushed out last September after two years on the job.
"People are going to say, 'There you go again, bringing someone in from out of state,' " Nicholson said.
But Blavatt and Mackey had clearly done their homework, citing in their interviews specifics about Hernando's academic performance and demographics and talking about strategies to improve, she said. And both men, unlike Alexander, have years of experience in superintendent posts.
"I don't think it would take them long to get up to speed and I think they could do it before they even start," Nicholson said.
Bonfield said she was impressed that Blavatt had mentored his successor in Kentucky. He could do that here, she said, citing that as a reason why she felt strongly that the board had to go with an outside candidate.
"Right now we do, because we haven't had (current employees) who have been mentored by people who have the knowledge base, who know what to do, when to do it and how to do it," Bonfield said. "I think Mr. Blavatt is the type of person who could develop someone like Mr. Pritz and other people in our county."
Only board member James Yant had the internal candidates in his top three during the first round of deliberations, ranking Pritz first, then Jackson and Blavatt. Yant said he picked Pritz and Jackson because they know the district and can build on ties to the public, especially in the business sector.
"I think we need to go with a proven individual, (someone) we know the community respects, someone who has longevity and could reach out if we need help," said Yant, who quickly got behind Blavatt in the second round of discussion.
Board members agreed before the negotiations with Blavatt began Wednesday that he is worth the top of the district's advertised salary range of $100,000 to $130,000.
Blavatt has asked for $130,000, Fagan said. That would still be less than the $160,000 he was earning by the time he left Boone County.
Blavatt. who has two masters' degrees in education and a law degree, retired voluntarily in 2008 after racking up accolades that included Kentucky's superintendent of the year award in 2007. He was praised for bringing technology to Boone County to enhance student performance. The district was among the highest-performing in the state when he left.
But Blavatt, who lives in Union, Ky. and has done some consultant work since leaving his last job, told board members during his interview that he'd retired too young.
Built like a bear and suffering from Bell's Palsy, a condition that has resulted in the temporary paralysis of the left side of his face, Blavatt said he was otherwise in good health and is ready to take on the challenge in Hernando.
"This district is too good not to get better," he said.
Nicholson asked him Tuesday how long he might stay.
"When you get me, you got me," he said, then looked back at his wife in the audience. "I'm good for another 10 (years), right, Barb?"
Board members agreed Wednesday to ask Blavatt to start as soon as possible. Jackson's contract as interim superintendent ends July 1 or when a permanent superintendent is hired. She is expected to move back to the assistant superintendent position she held for a few months before Alexander left in September.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.