Profile

The Value of Open Relationships

by Jay P. Goldman

On his second day as a superintendent, Carl Roberts had a high priority — to pay a visit to the kingpins of county government. "I wanted to start out on the right foot," he says.

That meeting with the Cecil County, Md., board of commissioners set in motion, if not a lovefest, a mutual admiration society that has brought significant benefits to public education in a school district ranked among the bottom six in property wealth in Maryland.

Now that he's about to begin his 11th year in the superintendency, Roberts can look back at that July 2 appointment as both a symbolic and tangible representation of a much-admired operating style. For Roberts, effective leadership stems from effective relationships. It's a defining thread that runs across the 16,500-student school system.

"He's actually involved in all aspects of the county," says Nelson Bolender, president of the board of commissioners. "You name it and Carl Roberts is involved. People here can't say he works in an ivory tower. People know him, respect him and trust him."

Roberts had a head start on all those connections long before his opening day of work. His family had moved to Cecil County when he was four weeks old when his father left university teaching in New Jersey to manage a dairy farm in the state's northeastern corner. Roberts taught for two years in the county before spending 23 years climbing the district ranks in Harford County, to Cecil's south.

"Having lived in this culture my entire life ... I didn't have the challenges other (new) superintendents have," he says.

The superintendent continues to meet monthly with the five county commissioners, a practice that has reaped important financial backing for the schools. Two of the past three annual district budget requests have been granted in total, and the third was trimmed by less than 1 percent.

School Board President William Herold says Roberts' personable manner has meant there's never head-butting or surprises on either side. "It's to our advantage him having a history and relationship that spans a lot of years" says Herold, who owns a local concrete company.

Roberts is a well-known quantity among his district's 2,200 employees as well, thanks in part to the "learning walks" that he conducts with other members of the senior staff at the county's 29 schools each year. The superintendent insists he profits as much as anyone from the site visits, which last from a half-day to a full day.

"It reminds me why we're here, to meet the needs of students, whether in kindergarten or AP calculus. You understand how great students are doing and the unique challenges they bring," he says.

He has introduced a systems approach to Cecil County's instructional process around continuous improvement that has teachers clamoring to be next in line for training. "They see increased motivation and achievement once they have classroom systems in place," says Barbara Wheeler, the associate superintendent. "Students understand that what they do in the classroom and at home has an impact on their learning."

On the state level, while serving for the past five years as legislative committee chair for his state association, Roberts has markedly raised the visibility of superintendents in Annapolis, where they've traditionally wielded little influence. Again, he says the key is establishing an ongoing and trusting relationship with key legislators and committee staff members.

"There's only 25 of us in the association, but we have as much influence as any other education group," says Roberts.

His colleagues clearly appreciate the talent he brings to bear on statewide matters. They picked him as the state superintendent of the year in 2005, and this fall, he'll relinquish the legislative chair to assume the presidency of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland.

Says Jim Lupis, the state association's executive: "He is always coming up with very creative solutions to complex problems."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

BIO STATS: CARL ROBERTS

Currently: superintendent, Cecil County Public Schools, Elkton, Md.

Previously: assistant superintendent, Harford County, Md.

Age: 60

Greatest influence on career: In my first high school assistant principalship, I worked under J. Walter Potter, who taught me you always do the right thing for the right purpose. And for the past 15 years, I have worked with Barbara Wheeler in two different school systems. Her passion to ensure high-quality learning opportunities for all students and her compassion for the challenges our students face outside of school have inspired me.

Best professional day: Twice I have been promoted to top leadership positions: On both occasions the outpouring of best wishes from colleagues and members of the communities where I worked was overwhelming.

Books at bedside: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin; and America on Trial: Inside the Legal Battles That Transformed Our Nation — From the Salem Witches to the Guantanamo Detainees by Alan M. Dershowitz

Biggest blooper: During my first months as a new superintendent, I was asked to speak at the dedication of a new school. In my notes I wrote the initials BHS for Bohemia Manor High School. But when reading my remarks, I stated, "It is a pleasure for me to be here today for the dedication of Bel Air High School." From the blank stares, I realized I named a school with the same initials from my previous job. I was totally embarrassed as it was my first public appearance outside of a board meeting.

Why I'm an AASA member: I have always held as a principal value that one should actively participate in the professional organization that can provide the greatest opportunity for professional and personal growth. Recently, my experiences as a member of the AASA Executive Committee have been nothing short of outstanding.