New D97 superintendent brings hands-on energy to post

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By TERRY DEAN

First reported 6/25/2010 2:41 p.m.

Albert Roberts, District 97's incoming superintendent, greeted some of his new staff last Friday shortly before the Oak Park elementary school board unanimously voted to appoint him during a specially scheduled board meeting.

That was where Roberts, just retired as superintendent of schools in the Detroit suburb of Clarkston, met a parent and her young daughter, both seated in a corner of the board room at 970 Madison. Roberts made his way around the board room, saying hello and shaking hands. Eventually he made his way to the mother and daughter.

"And how's the most important person in the room," said Roberts, his voice booming as he looked upon the somewhat shy little one, who smiled while looking toward the floor.

Roberts, 62, officially starts Thursday in Oak Park and he makes a point of keeping the focus on kids. In an interview Monday in the midst of getting estimates to make the move to Chicago, Roberts talked frequently about children and achievement. "If a third grader is failing you have to move fast. A child is only in the third grade once."

Roberts is replacing Constance Collins, who's already superintendent in northwest suburban Round Lake. The District 97 Board of Education voted 5-0 for Roberts - members Jennifer Reddy and James Gates were absent.

Compassionate and innovative were two descriptions given by members about their new leader. Roberts spent 14 years as Clarkston's superintendent, but had decided to accept a generous state retirement incentive - $40,000 according to press reports from Michigan - and announced his departure in May. The package has similarities to Illinois' early retirement package.

In May, Michigan lawmakers approved a plan that increased pension benefits for eligible school employees who retire between July 1 and Sept. 1. Roberts was among eight school superintendents eyeing retirement in that state. Overall, about 60 certified and non-certified staff in Clarkston signed up for the state's plan - teachers and administrators would get $40,000 over two years.

At the time of his decision to leave, Roberts said he had planned to stay on for a couple more years but decided on retirement to take advantage of the state's program, according to a May 27 story in The Oakland Press.

Like many school districts, particularly in economically impacted Michigan, budget cuts have been ongoing in Clarkston and are continuing this year. Twenty-eight teachers, administrators and 36 support staff are taking the retirement package Michigan has offered.

Roberts signed a three-year contract with Dist. 97 at a base salary of $195,000, somewhat higher than the $154,000 he was earning in Clarkston. Board President Peter Traczyk, though said Roberts had talked of wanting to spend five years in Oak Park.

After last Friday's vote, Roberts briefly addressed the board and those in attendance.

"All I can say is that I do want to get going because I believe that we have a lot of work to do here," he said.

Roberts was accompanied at the meeting by his wife, Arlene. They were greeted by a handful of Dist. 97 administrators. About 20 people, including principals, staff and parents, attended the meeting. Each board member talked about the qualities they observed and liked in Roberts - compassion and an ability to try new things educationally were among the main qualities. Every member said they had been impressed with Roberts' desire to put the needs of children above those of adults - a belief he emphasized to them during the interview process, they said.

Traczyk said Roberts' former colleagues in Michigan also highlighted that point. Traczyk said his board was willing to work with Roberts if he needed to start after July 1. Roberts, instead, insisted on starting the first of July.

After the vote, Roberts told Wednesday Journal that he was looking around for a new school district and had been aware of Oak Park. Roberts said he applied to Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates, the firm handling Dist. 97's search (HYA is currently conducting Clarkston's search).

"When the opportunity came to apply here, I jumped at it-there was no second thought," Roberts said.


Correction

In this story introducing Albert Roberts as District 97's new superintendent, we reported incorrectly that he had served as superintendent of schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio. In fact, Roberts was a principal in Shaker Heights. He previously worked as a superintendent in Pepper Pike, Ohio and in Clarkston, Michigan.

We regret the error.

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