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Profile                                      Page 51

 

North Dakota's Laid-Back Pro

BY ANN DOSS HELMS

 RobLech2
Rob Lech

When the Jamestown, N.D., school board went looking for a superintendent in 2013, they were a divided group whose rifts had led to the resignation of their last leader. In a state flush from an energy boom, this district had gone into the red.

 Rob Lech (it rhymes with “deck”), just 39 at the time, applied. Although Jamestown had candidates with more experience, the school board’s nine members united in choosing the young educator who never has shied from a challenge.

“He carries an air of knowledge and wisdom beyond his years,” says Greg Allen, a 22-year veteran of the Jamestown school board and president of the state school boards association.

A little over a year after hiring Lech, the board has found a new sense of purpose and mutual respect, Allen says. Lech helped them remember their bigger mission, craft a strategic plan and start getting the budget in shape.

And Lech has emerged as a leader in a once-rural state being buffeted by major societal change. It’s the kind of place where all the administrators know each other — and they speak highly of Lech, a North Dakota native who serves as 2014-15 president of the North Dakota Association of School Administrators.

“Rob is definitely considered one of the leaders we fall back on here in North Dakota,” says Aimee Copas, executive director of the state’s Council of Educational Leaders.

Lech’s first job after earning a bachelor’s degree was as principal of a school serving about 50 students in grades 7-12 in Tappen, N.D. In a school that small, he not only was the building leader but a teacher, activities director and coach.

“The earlier you get thrust into administration, the less classroom experience you’re going to have,” he says. That taught him to solicit advice, a collegial approach still marking his leadership style.

Working in a small school also means everything is personal, complicating a decision to dismiss a teacher in his second year. But when it was over, Lech says he was convinced he had done the right thing.

“It didn’t turn me away. It made me want to be better and take on new challenges,” he says.

In 2005, six years into his career as an educator, Lech got his first superintendent’s post, in Rolla, N.D. Three years later, he was hired to lead the Beulah schools, serving about 700 students in a region with a thriving oil and coal economy.

While the energy profits protected North Dakota from the worst of the Great Recession, the job growth transformed K-12 schooling. “Now all of a sudden, boom, you’re growing. That changes policy,” Lech says.

Soon after he began in Jamestown, a district of about 2,100 students, he met with each board member to talk about helping them make good decisions.

Allen calls the superintendent’s style laid-back professionalism. “He’s not in your face, but he has his facts and presents them with respect for all board members.”

Lech helped the board craft norms addressing professional decorum, efficient meetings, good stewardship of tax dollars — and above all, a focus on what’s best for students. Members read those norms at the start of each meeting.

“There’s been very few split votes since,” Allen says.

Jamestown and North Dakota have plenty of challenges ahead. Lech is leading the state administrators’ legislative focus, so he’ll be in the thick of it.

Copas says her colleague’s blend of youthful energy and tempered thought makes him perfect for the task. “He’s the kind of leader anybody would be happy to have 100 of in their back pocket,” she says.

Ann Doss Helms is a staff writer at the Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, N.C. E-mail: ahelms@charlotteobserver.com. Twitter: @anndosshelms
 

BIO STATS: Rob Lech

Currently: superintendent, Jamestown, N.D.
Previously: superintendent, Beulah, N.D.
Age: 40
Greatest influence on career: The collegiality of principals and superintendents in our state is truly amazing.
Best professional day: In a previous district, we built an effective alternative program for at-risk students. There were questions about its potential and cost at first. Seeing our first graduate, a dropout who moved into our community for this program, was inspiring. Seeing what she accomplished, given the right environment, validated every decision we made.
Book at bedside: Shifting the Monkey by Todd Whitaker
Biggest blooper: At an annual school foundation banquet, I was asked to select winners of a raffle. Although I randomly selected my wife’s name, I announced the superintendent’s spouse shouldn’t be allowed to win, so I threw her name out.
Why I’m an AASA member: I appreciate the professional advocacy that AASA provides for public education and the diligence with which they communicate with us.

 

 

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