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Hernando's new schools chief chosen over two local contenders

BROOKSVILLE — Despite an oft-cited philosophy of grooming local talent and promoting from within, the Hernando School Board last week overlooked two internal candidates to pick a former superintendent from Kentucky as its next chief executive.

But both Sonya Jackson, the interim superintendent, and Ken Pritz, principal of Hernando High, say they are at peace with the decision.

"Let's face it, this wasn't my turn," said Pritz, a 30-year veteran of the district. "Maybe the next go around, with some years under Bryan Blavatt, the board will see fit to make it my turn. I'm a firm believer my time will come when it's right."

A woman of faith, Jackson said she thinks an even higher authority than the board had a hand in the decision.

"God is in control of everything, that's the way I look at it," she said. "Obviously it was supposed to be Mr. Blavatt, so I'm OK with that."

The 63-year-old Blavatt, by the board's account, had the most experience of all six finalists and showed his interpersonal skills and attention to detail during his interview last week.

After 12 years in Boone County, a district of about 18,00 students, Blavatt had a record of high academic performance, board members agreed. And he cited Hernando County district statistics that showed he prepared well.

"I've got the feeling you actually live here and just popped up today," board member John Sweeney said at one point.

Pritz and Jackson, of course, do live here, and they stood out in a field of applicants lacking in Florida experience.

Pritz, 51, served six years in two positions — executive director of school services and executive director of facilities and support operations — that in other districts would be classified as an assistant superintendent. He started as a teacher at Hernando High in 1980, and former superintendent Wayne Alexander asked him to return there as principal in 2008 to help the struggling school improve.

Pritz came with recommendation from former Hernando School Board members and superintendents, including Wendy Tellone. He tried to persuade board members that the time had come for him to show his mettle as the chief executive.

"I have a Ken Pritz view, and I'm going to give you a Ken Pritz view," he said during his interview. "I would have the ability to show you I'm a unique person who can come in here and give you ideas."

Jackson, 45, became interim superintendent in September after Alexander departed at the behest of board members. Jackson had been in the newly created assistant superintendent post for just three months.

Jackson had served as executive director for school services. She came to Hernando in 2004 after a stint as a principal in Putnam County schools.

But only one of five board members ranked Pritz and Jackson in the top three.

During deliberations on the candidates after interviews last week, board member Dianne Bonfield said Blavatt could act as a mentor for current employees. That apparently went for future superintendents, too, because she mentioned Pritz by name. Board members noted that Blavatt groomed his successor in Boone County.

The same sentiment came up again at this week's School Board meeting after the board unanimously approved a three-year contract with Blavatt that will pay him $130,000 annually.

"Hopefully your mentoring will bring forth a person from this county to take your place when you retire," Chairman Pat Fagan said as Jackson sat to his left and Pritz watched from the audience.

When asked about being further groomed for the position, Pritz said he learned plenty during six years working for Tellone.

"But at the same time, you can always learn more," he said. Blavatt "obviously was successful up there. Who am I to think that I can't learn from him? I'd be crazy to think that."

Blavatt will have to catch up on Florida standards and policy. And he will need a crash course in how Hernando is grappling with such issues as the state's new accountability model, the budgeting process and the challenges ahead to meet the class size constitutional amendment requirements by next fall.

Jackson, who will go back to assistant superintendent when Blavatt starts April 1, said helping her new boss get acclimated will be a big part of her role in the coming months.

"I'm here to assist and support him and that's what I'm going to do," she said.

As for the notion that Jackson might be groomed as a possible successor, she laughed and said, "I'm going to hang around and see."

Improving the performance at Central and Hernando high schools is also among the biggest issues facing the district. As principal at Hernando, Pritz has been working with state officials on strategies to raise scores and is well-positioned to work with Blavatt.

Pritz said he has already made progress at the county's first high school and is glad for more time.

"We have a big task here to get Hernando out of that D range and we're going to continue to work hard to do it," he said.

"I think what people don't understand is, I'm really happy here," Pritz said. "But I've been happy in every job I do. I'm not a discontented employee. If the superintendent says, 'I want Ken Pritz to do this,' I'll do it and be thankful I have a job. That's what's important."

Blavatt did not take long to open lines of communication with his former co-finalists and soon-to-be employees. The day after his selection, Blavatt called both Pritz and Jackson.

"He was very personable and I thought that he was very open about what he would like to do," Pritz said. "I feel he treated me like a true professional and I feel very comfortable with him. I appreciate the fact that he called me and wanted to get my input."

For his part, Blavatt said he is already impressed with Pritz and Jackson. He said he realizes the critical role both will play.

"There may be bumps in the road, but I appreciate them and their talents and skills," he said. "Hopefully in the next several years while I'm here we'll work together and when it's time for me to ride off into the sunset, there will be that internal leadership here."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando's new schools chief chosen over two local contenders 01/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 7:56pm]
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