After about 30 minutes in a closed-door executive session, board member Marion Barnes moved to renew Roberson’s contract by one year. In a roll call vote, five black board members voted in favor of the motion while four white members voted against.
That left the deciding vote to Frank Dolan, who took nearly a minute to make his decision.
“I have big misgivings for (Roberson’s) ability to schedule things and do the job and keep the budget in order,” Dolan said after the meeting. “But to be the embarrassment that we would have been as a board going down racial lines, it just screamed at me we are back in the 1950s.”
Dolan said he could not tolerate the racial undertones tied to the vote or the last-minute notice they would be giving Roberson if the contract was not renewed.
Roberson was hired in August 2010 on a three-year $170,000 contract. With a background in school reform, he was largely seen as a savior to rescue the struggling school system. He fell ill six months later with complications from an abnormal clustering of blood vessels on the brain, known as an arteriovenous malformation, and underwent emergency brain surgery.
Roberson was absent for the large part of 19 months, returning on a part-time basis in December 2011 and full time in September 2012. Roberson said doctors told his family after his surgery that he would never walk, talk or possibly see again.
With physical therapy and “help from God,” Roberson made a remarkable recovery, saying Tuesday he has no professional limitations and is “the Frank Roberson that this board hired.”
“I’ve not been very bashful about my reliance on God,” Roberson said. “I rely on him for all things. He was even in the middle of this decision tonight.”
Board member Barbara Pulliam said she did not believe the vote was race driven but fueled more by the desire to give the superintendent a second chance to prove himself. Because of the timing of his illness and short period since his return, the board has conducted only one evaluation on Roberson – a process that is supposed to be performed annually, according to his contract.
“I don’t know why it was divided racially but it wasn’t a racial thing,” Pulliam said. “People just see that. I thought they needed to give him more time. A full year is fair, so let’s see what he can do.”
Dolan disagreed, saying he spoke personally to three board members – although he refused to give names – who stated they did not believe Roberson was capable of performing the job but could not vote against him because of pressure from the black community.
Dolan also said the board did a terrible job preparing for this decision, which took place two days before Roberson’s contract was to expire, leaving no time for him to make personal arrangements if his contract was not renewed.
“I told everyone on the board this man is a wonderful person and I have a soft spot in my heart for him because he is so kind, but he is not the same person and he needs to get his affairs in order,” Dolan said. “To crush an individual like we were fixing to do to somebody is against my heart of hearts. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to try to get the very best qualified person in this period of time … I did this tonight because I didn’t want to be a part of something bigger and nastier.”
After the vote, Board President Venus Cain called Dolan “a hell of a man.”
“For all of us it’s been stressful, it’s been trying and it’s been emotional, but the bottom line is we now have to do what we need to do to move this system forward,” Cain said.
Roberson has presented the board with several initiatives aimed at improving student achievement in recent months. He proposed a new data tracking system where his cabinet will analyze achievement scores with principals monthly and regularly compare test data with 11 comparable districts. He also has initiatives in place for more parental engagement.
Board member Jack Padgett, who voted against the renewal, said progress will be difficult. Padgett said renewing Roberson’s contract only postponed the process of finding another superintendent who can reform the district for the long-haul.
If Roberson’s contract is not renewed when it expires in August 2014, the board will have to wait until the following February to begin a search to coincide with the employment cycle of superintendents across the country.
That will be more than a year wasted in a time when the district is facing devastating budget issues and a crisis in student achievement.
“Right now we are not in a good place,” Padgett said. “We are under very difficult conditions.”