John R. O'Rourke

Not One for the Limelight Alone by JAY GOLDMAN

When the Pittsford Central School District received the prestigious Governor's New York State Excelsior Award last spring, Superintendent John O'Rourke wasn't about to let the spotlight shine on him alone.

Rather, he insisted that representatives of six key stakeholder groups—administrators, teachers, support staff, school board, parents and students—share the dais with him at a resort in the Adirondack Mountains to accept the honor, modeled after the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. All six, including a sixth-grade student, delivered brief remarks on the special qualities of their school system.

Crediting those around him is typical of the recently named 1997 National Superintendent of the Year, his colleagues insist. "I have never heard him use the word 'I' when talking of honors or recognition—it is always 'we' as a team," says Jerry Sollenne, principal of Pittsford Sutherland High School.

Adds PTA President Barbara Cregg: "The first words out of his mouth after winning the state superintendent of the year award were 'It's not me, it's everybody. We're all in this together.'"

O'Rourke, 52, has been superintendent in the 5,400-student district in suburban Rochester since 1992 after four years in Fulton, N.Y., his first superintendency.

He hadn’t given any serious thought to a career in educational administration when in his 12th year as a school psychologist in the Fayetteville-Manlius Central Schools near Syracuse he was asked to fill in temporarily for an ailing central-office colleague. A few months later he became the permanent director for pupil personnel services.

"I never had the slighted thought before of becoming an administrator," O'Rourke conceded. "I had an established position as a psychologist, and I didn’t want to trade it to become a mediocre administrator."

In accepting the top national honor among superintendents, cosponsored by The ServiceMaster Co. and AASA, O'Rourke went to great lengths to describe the structure he fashioned for involving the entire community in the process for educating children. "To cry out for high standards without providing structure will only cause frustration," he said.

He emphasized how every decision reflects three core values: a focus on instruction, partnerships, and continuous improvement.

Decision-making in Pittsford encourages broad public engagement and the school district regularly solicits feedback from staff, parents, and students. "We survey every parent on what they think of what we do," he said.

But this doesn’t mean O'Rourke is a passive bystander in this decentralized system. Last year, when a parent committee proposal to create a separate, well-funded program for gifted students seemed likely to cause an uproar among the wider community, the superintendent quietly intervened by suggesting the proponents explore alternative solutions.

"John was able to have the groups come to a compromise solution that they designed," said technology coordinator Sherman Craig, a Pittsford educator for 32 years.

O'Rourke recognizes his good fortune to work in a well-to-do district the likes of Pittsford, headquarters for corporate giant Eastman Kodak. Pittsford spends $9,800 per pupil and about 95 percent of its graduates each year go on to college. More than three-fourths earn Board of Regents-endorsed diplomas.

In its 50-year history, the school district has suffered only a single budget defeat, that in 1990 by 27 votes. Last spring, the community adopted the schools budget by the largest percentage in a decade.

"What makes us a special school district is the process that involves getting better," O'Rourke said.

The soft-spoken superintendent seemed almost embarrassed by the attention that showered him as the 10th National Superintendent of the Year. But O’Rourke’s penchant for shunning the solo spotlight is a quality that endears him in Pittsford to those who rank as critics and cynics around many other superintendents.

Teacher union president Barbara Shapiro meets at least once every two weeks with O'Rourke. She says: "In some of those meetings, I'm thinking, 'Hey, I'm doing all the talking here and he's doing all the listening.' So I'll say, 'Hey, your turn.'"

Meanwhile, Amy Hatch, who spent three years covering Pittsford schools for the weekly Pittsford-Brighton Post, says she harbors no suspicions about the answers she gets from the superintendent. "Reporters complain about this, and I've done it myself, when they say (of a public official), "Oh, he's not saying anything. He's just being smooth."

But she concedes O'Rourke strikes her differently. "He's easy going, charming, always straightforward, never lies, does not cover things up. He always lets me know when it's off the record." And best of all, Hatch reports, "He never takes the criticism personally."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: