Friday, March 23, 2018

Retiring superintendent Bryan Blavatt brought stability to a school district in rough waters

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando superintendent of schools Bryan Blavatt stepped into his office for the first time in April 2010 and was greeted by a full-scale rebellion.

At Westside Elementary School, the district's new chief educator found a staff on the verge of mutiny under principal Dominick Ferello. In more than a dozen letters, staffers described Ferello as surly and heavy-handed. The teachers union threatened to put his leadership to a vote of confidence.

Not a week on the job, and Blavatt was facing his first test.

He met with all parties, appeasing the union leaders and getting them to back off their threat. He decided to transfer Ferello, but not until the end of the school year. He delivered the message to teachers — in person — during a faculty meeting.

"It was not a situation one would wish for, but it gave me an opportunity, right away, to establish my leadership style," he said in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "We were able to move forward."

And that, in a nutshell, is what his tenure has been all about.

In his three years as superintendent, Blavatt, 67, has steered the district through tight financial times and dramatic budget cuts, a growing statewide emphasis on accountability, ever-toughening academic standards and frequent legislative changes. He has made substantial administrative changes, helped quell sometimes rocky relations with the School Board and tried to move the district beyond its drama-filled past.

"Our sailboat was tipped over," said Joe Vitalo, the former president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. "He helped bring it back up and put the sails on."

• • •

By all accounts, Blavatt, who retired last week, inherited a mess.

Under his predecessor, Wayne Alexander, the district was fractured. Morale plummeted. Political turmoil was rampant.

Ousted nearly 10 months before his term was set to expire, Alexander was accused of fostering nepotism, making irresponsible budget recommendations, failing to oversee the district staff and being secretive about his efforts to find a new job.

He was called "polarizing" and a "bull in a china shop."

Alexander eventually lost the board's support. They went looking for a new chief.

In searching for a replacement, School Board members were clear they wanted someone who could bring stability.

Blavatt seemed to fit the bill.

A longtime educator and a highly regarded former superintendent, he was praised as an effective communicator and someone with a history of grooming successors. Board members were impressed by Blavatt's record, his easygoing humor and the genuine way he carried himself.

School Board member John Sweeney first noticed those qualities during Blavatt's interview.

Suffering from Bell's palsy, Blavatt came to the appointment looking unhealthy.

"We asked him how long he could give us," Sweeney said.

Blavatt turned around in the middle of the interview and called to his wife.

"Hey, Barb, how long can I give them?" he shouted.

Everyone laughed.

"It was the funniest, most honest, most genuine thing I've ever heard," Sweeney said. "And it meant something."

• • •

Blavatt wanted to come to Hernando and provide stability, and he says he accomplished that.

One of the most telling indicators, he says: The district has survived large financial cuts and increases in academic rigor without regressing.

"We have been able to make these cuts without doing massive layoffs," he said. "We've managed to maintain quality, and that's really a tough thing."

For the past two years, Hernando schools have been forced to make consecutive rounds of 10 percent cuts, slicing budgets to bare bones, principals say.

"There were two cannon holes that were blown into the side of our ship," said former Central High principal Joe Clifford. "He managed to keep the ship afloat."

There haven't been any dramatic changes in student performance.

Under Blavatt, the district earned a B grade for the 2010-11 school year. For the 2011-12 year, the most recent available, the district earned a C, reflecting tougher academic standards that caused many school and district grades across the state to drop. The three other districts in the Tampa Bay area also received C's.

The district also has seen big improvements in student attendance.

During Blavatt's first year, average daily attendance was just under 91 percent. The district only had 29 truancy cases. By the next year, the attendance rate had jumped nearly two percentage points, and the district pursued 178 cases of truancy.

The dropout rate has also improved slightly, according to the most recent data, though it still is above the state average. The district's high school graduation rate has stayed around the state average, where it has been for roughly 10 years.

• • •

Blavatt has presided over a number of significant changes.

Needing to cut costs, the district eliminated busing for students who live within 2 miles of a school. He also implemented an athletic fee, oversaw changes to the district's magnet admissions policies and led the school system through redistricting. He added a student representative to the School Board. He revamped the district's alternative school.

One of his most significant moves came in the district office, where a second assistant superintendent was added.

Getting that position wasn't easy.

Worried about costs, the School Board rejected Blavatt's attempt to reorganize the district office three times.

It didn't go over well. Blavatt unleashed a torrent of criticism, accusing board members of micromanaging and making it impossible for him to do his job.

"I believe in my heart, and please understand this is not personally directed at any of you … that this is the most dysfunctional, nonproductive, counterproductive group of individuals I've ever seen in 40 years," he said during a board meeting.

He gave the board an ultimatum: Fire me or let me do my job.

Things got better after that.

Blavatt's reorganization plan eventually was approved.

He wishes it would have happened sooner, giving him more time to work with the two assistant superintendents prior to his retirement.

Having been hired in part for his ability to groom successors, Blavatt did not succeed. School Board members passed over Ken Pritz and Sonya Jackson when they applied for the superintendent's position.

Blavatt said both Pritz and Jackson "were fully capable of being effective superintendents."

• • •

Blavatt says he's been focused on one thing during more than four decades he has spent in education.

"We're here to do what's best for students," he said.

Many have commended his efforts.

"He dedicated 40 years of his life, and he did what he believed in his heart was right for kids," said Clifford, the former Central principal. "I applaud him for that."

Clifford said Blavatt always provided him the support he needed, giving him the freedom to do what he felt was necessary to improve instruction at his school.

Longtime principal Sue Stoops said Blavatt was always someone to listen to principals.

"I didn't always win my arguments, but I always had a chance to share my thoughts with him," Stoops said, adding, "I think his heart is in the right place — for the kids."

Former student services director Jim Knight said Blavatt did a "fairly good" job, especially given the financial shape of the district when he arrived.

"We managed to get through that without a lot of animosity on the part of anyone, and I think that speaks well of him," he said.

Knight also gives Blavatt credit for dealing directly with parents.

Until Blavatt arrived, Knight was the district's liaison with the public during the always-contentious process of school rezoning. Blavatt took it upon himself to lead meetings at affected schools, facing crowds of disgruntled families to explain how attendance boundaries were shifting and why. He also took the day-to-day calls from angry parents.

He stood firm when he needed to, Knight said.

"He was willing to be the heavy," he said.

Mary-Grace Surrena, director of student services, praised Blavatt's efforts to secure a second assistant superintendent position and his decision to tap Pritz, then Hernando High's principal, to fill it.

Pritz is a hands-on administrator who spends most of his time on campuses meeting with principals to offer suggestions to get the most out of their teachers and students, Surrena said.

"That's been good for the district and good for the schools," she said.

Blavatt does have a number of detractors, though most did not want to comment on the record for this article.

There have been allegations of sexism. Some were put off by his ego and what they perceived as dismissive comments about Hernando County. Some felt he didn't visit schools often enough.

To all of that, Blavatt has a simple answer.

"Usually, if everybody loves you," he said, "you're doing nothing."

Staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

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