Roger D. Breed

Growing Humble While Growing Big by JAY P. GOLDMAN

Roger Breed isn’t the type to hand off to others a task that has the greatest possibilities for affecting student learning. This explains why Breed, the superintendent in Elkhorn, Neb., spends much of every spring reading job applications and interviewing prospective teachers.

Superintendents of burgeoning suburban districts don’t typically oversee the hiring of their instructional personnel, but Breed considers it his essential responsibility as the school district’s hands-on academic leader. He reads the best of the applications (there were 800 in all last year) for Elkhorn’s two dozen vacancies most years, selects the interview pool, calls professional references and interviews the finalists.

"The greatest impact I can have on a continuing basis is to put really good people in front of our kids each day," he says.

When Breed moved up to the top job in 1991 from Elkhorn’s assistant superintendency, in which he oversaw curriculum and community relations, he admits, "The last thing I wanted to deal with was the grass and buses." He hired a excellent detail person as his No. 2 to oversee buildings and maintenance, transportation and support functions "so I could concentrate on being the leader of the teaching staff."

Anne Doerr, who’s now an elementary school principal in Elkhorn, remembers the personal interest Breed demonstrated during her interview for a teaching position. "He took me out on a tour of the district. I thought that was pretty unique [for someone in that position]," she says.

Breed says his involvement in classroom hiring helps him to establish high expectations and the sort of professional and personal relationships that make a difference in a teacher’s life. It stems from something he fondly recalls about his first teaching job in Lincoln, Neb., the state’s second largest school system. "Because I knew the superintendent in Lincoln when I was a teacher, it gave my work value," he says. "That’s something I can’t do in other ways as superintendent. I can’t create a retirement system or a pay system."

Breed, a native of Manhattan, Kan., came to his current district in 1987 from Axtell, Neb., a rural school district of 270 students that bordered cornfields on several sides. He spent two years running the system, which included shoveling snow from the school walkways and tightening the screws on a metal school roof. He jokes about his experience: "I’d look around and call the staff development department and realize, ‘Hey, it’s me.’ I’d go to call the facilities department and realize, ‘That’s me, too.’"

The two settings couldn’t be more dissimilar within a single state. Elkhorn, located on the western fringe of Omaha, is one of Nebraska’s few rapidly developing communities. Enrollment has grown 45 percent during the past decade to 2,700 students at the moment, which has often left Breed playing what he calls "a bit of a chess game, looking two to three moves into the future."

Elkhorn’s former school board president Paul Wortman thinks the superintendent has mastered the game nimbly, positioning the district to accommodate growth into the next decade by leading three successful bond campaigns, totaling almost $24 million, for renovating and expanding facilities. Along the way, Breed had to pacify those in Elkhorn who wanted the town’s unpretentious and nondescript past to be its future and saw him as a growth mongerer.

Breed believes he learned his greatest lesson about the need to be humble and realistic in one’s desires from the town’s 3-to-1 rejection in 1997 of a bond proposal to build two new schools. "What I think they were saying to me was ‘go back to build what you need in the foreseeable future and we’ll vote for it, but don’t leapfrog that position.’" By the same margin, the voters endorsed a scaled-down facilities plan the following year to meet the immediate needs.

Sometimes even the best-laid plans get trumped by unexpected good fortune. Breed counts his lucky stars for the day in October 1998 when a well-to-do Elkhorn resident walked into the superintendent’s office and offered to underwrite the complete price tag of a computer-assisted drafting lab for the district’s high school. The $270,000 facility. which opened in August, has attracted considerable attention to Nebraska’s 17th-largest school system.

"We’re enjoying one of the calmer-water times in our district," admits Breed, who’s begun thinking about the next bond request for a new middle school. "But the pleasantries of a superintendent’s job only last until the next board meeting."

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