BROOKSVILLE — The period before a change in school superintendents is typically filled with question marks and a bit of bated breath.
Before flying back to Kentucky last week, Hernando's next school superintendent, Bryan Blavatt, sat down for a question-and-answer session with the St. Petersburg Times. He talked about his leadership style, offered his take on standardized testing and expressed such a strong desire to be accessible that he might even answer his own phone.
On Jan. 13, a unanimous school board picked Blavatt, a former superintendent in Boone County, Ky., to head the Hernando district, citing his proven record of success there and an obvious knack for communicating. And all five board members voted Tuesday in favor of a three-year contract that will pay Blavatt a base salary of $130,000 the first year.
Here's what the new superintendent had to say.
You retired from Boone County after what was, by all the accounts we've seen, a successful 12-year tenure. Why did you want another job at the age of 63, and why Hernando?
I missed the daily interaction with students. I really missed being superintendent. I retired too early. And Hernando was a slam dunk because Hernando is very similar to Boone County in the number of students, the growth factor, the demographics.
One nice part about being a retired superintendent is you can pick and choose where you apply and where you choose to work, and I really like Hernando. All the initial first-blush impressions have been supported by the folks here.
What is your understanding of the state of the district after Wayne Alexander's often tumultuous tenure, and what would you say to people who fear a repeat from an unknown applicant?
I can appreciate their apprehension, but I am certainly not the former superintendent. I value kids very, very much, and my only displeasure is that this tumultuous period has had its impact on students. When students and school districts aren't able to perform because they're in a state of flux, that sets kids back, it sets school administrators back, and you're not allowed to move forward.
As of April 1, I want to put that stuff in the background, and we need to start moving forward with leadership, understanding that those people who think this, too, will pass are wrong. I'm here.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I think that my leadership style is defined by the people that I've worked with and (how) they perceive and see me. I think the greatest thing that I hear from folks is that I may not always agree with them, but I listen. I hear what they have to say. I work with folks to collaborate. You can't be a successful team without working together or developing some kind of interaction. I'm going to build the coalition and the collaboration to be successful.
You will have to catch up quickly on Florida policy and on Hernando. What is your sense of the priorities here?
There's a strategic plan, and there are also other plans in effect (such as) budgetary plans. I've already pretty well looked at policies and procedure and asked for some more. But to be honest with you, it's not just what's on paper. The first several months I think will be a tremendous time for listening to hear what people's perceptions are and verifying it with the data that's available to see what's really happening.
I've already gotten a copy of Florida Statutes. I've met with staff in different areas and asked them to start providing me information. All of this is prior to my official duty in April … but it's preparation so I can hit the ground with my feet moving.
I'm impatient, I want change, but people have to understand that moving a school district and making major changes is like turning a battleship in a creek. It's not one of those things where you whip it around. It takes a period of time and slow maneuvering … so you get it where you want.
I would say that the district is in really good shape. There are obviously some trends there that concern me and we have room to get better.
One example: Two of our four high schools, Central and Hernando, are struggling and already working under a high level of state oversight.
I think with the internal leadership in both of those places, given support and with some degree of stability, you're going to see some movement forward on that and it's going to be a moot issue. We have the resources in the district and the expertise to move those (schools) ahead. It's a matter of just recharging.
You were praised in Kentucky for your communication skills. What were the strategies as chief executive in Boone County you used to keep everyone in the district in the loop?
One of things that proved very effective is providing a summer leadership conference, bringing people together to make sure we have the same goals and objectives in all the schools and that we're part of a unified team. In a fairly large district, it's hard to get everybody on the same page and understand critically that how the kids perform at Eastside (Elementary) is just as important as it is at Brooksville Elementary. When the water goes up, all of us rise.
I really look forward to a lot more community involvement. One of the things I will probably initiate early on are some town meetings so people can meet me personally, talk with me, express their concerns and interests.
Board members and Alexander talked a lot about the feeling of "haves and have-nots" among the district's schools. You used that phrase during your interview with the school board. Why?
My impression is, if you look at it, there's a disparity. In some communities you have a development that becomes almost bimodal, where there's no middle ground. It's pretty obvious you have some really great kids that are doing really, really well, but it's just as important that we take a look at that other quartile of youngsters that aren't doing well and don't necessarily have all of those advantages. They are just as important to the community as the other students and just as important to their parents.
Do you have specific messages for teachers and staff?
I want to try to establish stability. It's clear to me that … there is not going to be a great deal of change quickly, but it's going to be institutionalized change over a period of time. And growth toward our mission is going to be one where all of us collaboratively are going to move to that. It's going to be a mission statement that really means something.
I think it's critical that they know they're an important part of what happens, and if they don't like teaching then maybe there are other things they can do. But if they like teaching, I'm here to support them to do what they can for kids.
And to parents?
The board is very, very good about this, but we need to be more transparent and parent-friendly in our schools and in our central office. That physical plant is not an inviting place for people to come, and we need to make our central office — all of our offices — a place where parents can feel comfortable. Our schools should be a place where they're comfortable, because the biggest factor in ending questions people have about schools is for them to go see for themselves, to get in the school and see what's going on.
I have a commitment — and I understand this is already in place in Hernando County — any time a parent calls or anyone calls, they need to be responded to that day and that all expressed concerns are dealt with in a 24-hour period, no matter what. I'm obsessive about that.
The district office right now opens at 8 a.m. Well, schools are open at 7:15 a.m. We're going to have to look at that. Parents should call and get a real human being.
In Boone County, we were selected for the What Parents Want (Award) 12 years in a row. That's a definite goal. There's a national screening, and only about 5 percent (of districts) make it. We've got to work on that, and it's based on talking to parents.
And a message to students?
I am very, very student driven, and on every one of the evaluations (and) even when I received awards, the single biggest thing folks said, and it's true, my dedication is to the students that we serve. And they're going to become significant shareholders.
I certainly will establish, as I have in other districts, a student advisory group where I will be talking regularly with student leaders … and hear what they have to say about what's happening in the schools.
Kentucky has the Commonwealth Accountability Test System, or CATS. We have the FCAT. What message do you have for teachers worried about teaching to the test and the looming issue of performance-based pay?
I understand the apprehension and concern, but if we're teaching kids, they ought to perform on any tests. If we're teaching the concepts, the kids should know what they need to know.
The other thing we have to start emphasizing is critical thinking skills. If we're teaching just for factual knowledge, that's ridiculous because if you need information you can just go on the Internet.
You declined a raise while in Boone County when students didn't make achievement goals and say you're willing to do the same thing here after a year.
I think that's absolutely appropriate. Let's get a baseline and then look at it. We've got to continue to move up. If you stay where you are, you're actually falling behind.
What would you like people to know about you personally?
Just to reaffirm to people that what you see is what you get. You're not going to get surprises from me. I don't like surprises, and I don't provide surprises. You may not always like what's going on, but I'll be up front with everybody. If I tell you something, I'm going to do it.
How would you describe your style when people do have an issue with a decision you've made?
My only request is that they communicate it in the appropriate manner. I'm certainly willing to listen. But the fact is, I'd much rather get input before the decision is made than to be criticized after the decision. After the fact, it's no great skill to criticize. It's much more important to get your 2 cents in prior.
One of the things that I love to do, and I hope I have the opportunity, is to answer my own phone. I will do what I can to deflect 25 layers of getting to the superintendent. You should be able to have direct access.
I've been in this a few years, and I get a real sense and feeling of what's going on here, and there are much more positives than negatives. People here ought to start celebrating. Maybe because of the transition they haven't had the chance to stop and think: Hey, this is pretty good what we have here.