The majority of Richmond County Board of Education members are willing to wait as long as it takes for Superintendent Frank Roberson to return from medical leave, even though recent state test results made the district the worst performing among similar systems in Georgia.
Roberson walked into the struggling school district in August 2010, fell ill with a brain condition six months later and took medical leave that has morphed from temporary to indefinite. The goals for reform Roberson spelled out were no longer in his hands.
Now that almost nine months have passed without the school system’s leader, school board members have differing views on what his absence means for progress. Most say business has continued as usual under the guidance of Roberson’s cabinet, while others worry student achievement has suffered in his absence.
Some are willing to let Roberson ride his medical leave through the length of his three-year contract, if necessary, while his cabinet handles the daily work of running the system.
“Everything doesn’t depend on the superintendent,” said board member Barbara Pulliam. “It goes way beyond that. If you have dedicated workers, you have dedicated teachers, things are going to go on as usual.”
Although Pulliam called Roberson’s talent to inspire others “a gift,” she said Acting Superintendent James Whitson has taken over with his own brilliance in the meantime.
The difference is that Roberson came to the school system with a strong agenda for change. He vowed to raise the on-time graduation rate to 90 percent by 2014, increase the number of schools making federal “adequate yearly progress” standards and expand the number of academic magnet programs within five years.
According to data, all but one of those goals have been stalled in his absence. Before reaching the 90 percent graduation rate goal in 2014, Roberson hoped to make it to 80 percent in the Class of 2011. Richmond County surpassed that with 80.7 percent.
He vowed to increase the number of students in magnet programs from
the current 2,000 to “well over 10,000” within five years.
The week he fell ill, Roberson was supposed to host an event in which 20 schools would present plans for magnet programs.
The event was canceled, and only one school – Cross Creek High – has fully incorporated an official magnet program in its curriculum.
“They’re kind of sitting still,” schools spokesman Louis Svehla said of the magnet plans. “Dr. Roberson was really the only one that had any pure idea of what his plan was and, when he went out, there wasn’t a clear path or clear way to move forward ... because no one really had the specifics of what he had in mind.”
AS FAR AS student achievement, Roberson said he wanted 44 of the district’s 55 schools to meet AYP standards in the 2010-11 year, which would have been a leap from the 27 schools that made AYP one year earlier.
According to results released this month, only 25 schools made the benchmarks, two fewer than last year and 19 below Roberson’s goal.
Because students took the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests just two months after Roberson went on medical leave, board member Jimmy Atkins said the poor results cannot be attributed to Roberson’s absence.
However, Atkins is worried about how student achievement will be affected next year because students have had nine months without Roberson’s vision.
“I think he would have been able to see (this year’s) data and have a solid game plan on how to improve upon that,” Atkins said. “We can try to make all the excuses in the world about state criteria has gotten tougher or whatever, but the truth is we are last in the schools making AYP and, as a board member, I’m not happy with that.”
Atkins, Alex Howard and Helen Minchew are the only three of eight board members interviewed who said Roberson’s absence has affected the school system. Patsy Scott did not return repeated calls and e-mails seeking comment. Frank Dolan refused to speak with a Chronicle reporter because of his displeasure with a recent Chronicle article about his annual financial disclosure filings.
BOTH ATKINS AND Minchew said if Roberson does not return by January 1, they would want to meet with board members on what to do about the district’s leadership.
Minchew said Whitson has done “an excellent job” in maintaining the school system, but he never intended to be the superintendent. Without the leader chosen by the school board, long-term progress goals have been put on hold, Minchew said.
It’s still uncertain when Roberson will be able to pick up where he left off. In a phone interview Friday, Roberson said he is “getting closer” to coming back but could not predict a return date.
Although he is anxious to get back to work, Roberson said he is confident in the administrative staff leading the district and the teachers who are continually improving instruction for students.
“They have embraced a vision for a high quality school system for the children,” Roberson said of his staff. “They believe in it.”
UNTIL THE DAY when Richmond County can welcome its superintendent back, board member Marion Barnes said nothing in the system has suffered in the nine months without Roberson.
“We hired folks, we entered into contracts, we passed the budget. I don’t know anything that’s been on hold,” Barnes said. “We have someone in (Roberson’s) place doing what he would have been doing.”
National School Boards Association Executive Director Anne Bryant said most superintendent contracts should include a clause about how to handle unexpected interruptions in the leader’s role. She said having a consistent superintendent enforce vision and goals is essential for student achievement.
“No matter what the cause, the loss of a chief executive can be disruptive,” Bryant said. “Especially when you have a dynamic, powerful individual suddenly gone, it’s very hard on an acting superintendent in this case to take dramatic direction. That’s not what he’s there to do. He’s there to be a caretaker.”
Roberson’s vision of what the school system could be is what made people think he had what it took to turn the district around, according to Monique Braswell, local parent and president of the Richmond County Council of Parent Teacher Associations.
“We all thought Dr. Roberson was sent to us by God, trust me,” Braswell said. “Before he got sick, Dr. Roberson brought the morale of the parents back about this school system. ... The day he comes back will be the day that this system will get back on the path that he was taking us.”