When Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent Todd Roberts made public his resignation on Friday, one person who was not surprised was AAPS school board president Deb Mexicotte. She had been contacted three weeks ago to be a reference for Roberts as he moved through the hiring process to become the newest chancellor of the North Carolina School for Science and Math (NCSSM).
He got the job offer on Tuesday, Mexicotte said in a phone interview with The Chronicle, and then spoke to each board trustee individually throughout Wednesday and Thursday, most of them in person, to share his decision and reasons for leaving. Tuesday was also the filing deadline for candidates to run for school board. Only incumbents – including Mexicotte – filed for re-election, so the seats will be uncontested.
Joni Worthington, vice president for communications for the University of North Carolina, confirmed that Roberts was originally tapped for the position by the NCSSM’s chancellor search committee, which hired a consulting firm to aid them in the process. Once making it through the rounds of school-level interviews in May and June, Worthington said, Roberts was interviewed directly by the president of UNC, Erskine Bowles, who then recommended Roberts to the UNC board of governors at their regular meeting yesterday.
Located in Roberts’ hometown of Durham, NCSSM is a public boarding school for 11th and 12th grade students gifted in math or science, and is ultimately governed by UNC, as one of its 17 campuses. Roberts will be the school’s fourth chancellor since its founding in 1980, and is succeeding Gerald Boarman, who resigned at the end of July. An interim chancellor, Thomas J. Williams, will serve NCSSM until Roberts arrives, no later than Dec. 1.
Interim Leadership Under Consideration
Describing Roberts as a “steadying force” in the district, AAPS teachers’ union president Brit Satchwell noted by phone yesterday that Roberts’ departure comes at a sensitive time for AAPS. “The district is working through some huge transitions right now,” Satchwell said, citing the revamping of teacher evaluations and merit pay in response to new state laws, as well as curricular realignments in the district’s elementary schools and the creation of common assessments.
The system, like many others throughout Michigan, also faces ongoing budget challenges, with uncertain state funding and projected deficits. Officials had hoped that a proposed countywide millage last fall would bring in new revenue, but it was rejected by voters in November.
“There’s just so much going on in the district right now, as it continues to deal with the financial realities,” Satchwell cautioned, “that it would not be wise to replace [Roberts] without a proper and thorough search.”
Acknowledging that there were “very, very few choices,” Satchwell advocated that the board appoint an interim superintendent familiar with the district who could step in immediately and provide leadership while the board moves through a national search process. Along the same lines, board treasurer Christine Stead also suggested by phone yesterday that “there are some very capable people in our community” who the board could consider as it plans its next steps.
Mexicotte noted that both the board and Roberts are committed to a positive and seamless transition, and that his departure is an “absolutely amicable situation.” She confirmed that Roberts has agreed to stay through the fall as necessary, but suggested that he may go sooner than that once the board has established interim leadership. The board will meet in executive session before next week’s regular meeting on Aug. 18, Mexicotte said, to review their options and to outline a possible transition plan, including who the board might consider asking to lead in the interim.
Superintendent Selection Process and Timeline
There is no official process the board needs to go through to select a new superintendent, but Mexicotte said she expected the process to be “unique to Ann Arbor,” and similar to the one the district went through to choose Roberts four years ago, which included surveys, community involvement, and staff input. Noting that four of the current board members have been through a superintendent hiring process, but that three have not, Mexicotte said she has requested that the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) provide the board with guidance in terms of which steps are usually taken.
Stead also mentioned that the MASB could provide support, or even oversee the process should the district choose to hire them for that service. Mexicotte concurred that the board will likely hire a consultant to aid in the search process, such as the MASB or a private executive search firm. Whatever process was chosen, Mexicotte said, it would “allow stakeholders to help with the selection process.”
Though Mexicotte stressed that nothing will be decided for sure until the board meets this coming Wednesday, she outlined the following as a possible process.
First, she said, the board could get an interim system of leadership in place, which could involve people from AAPS internally, the community externally, or some sort of leadership consortium. Then, the board could release Roberts. Finally, in January or February of 2011, the board could mount a national search for a new superintendent. If such a process is followed, Mexicotte said, she would expect an offer could be made by April 2011.
Regarding the possible delay in beginning the search, Stead said that it was Roberts’ suggestion to wait until January to post the position. Mexicotte explained that the academic cycle is such that the candidate pool opens up in the winter, as conscientious and solid candidates, such as those AAPS would consider, would not likely be willing to leave their current positions at the beginning of a school year to take a new job. Beginning the search in January, for instance, she said, allows possible candidates enough time to consider a professional move at a better time of the year.
The salary that would likely be offered to the new superintendent would be in the “high-median range,” Mexicotte said. She noted that Roberts is making the same salary he was when he was initially hired – a base salary of $175,000 – which was high at the time he was hired, but is in the median range now. The board has extended Roberts’ contract as recently as last year, she continued, but since he is choosing to leave, he will be paid only through the last day he works for the district. [The state of Michigan limits the allowable length of superintendents' contracts to five years. This protects districts financially, since if a district fires a superintendent, it must pay out the rest of that employee's contract.] At NCSSM, he’ll earn $210,000.
Roberts Will Be Missed
The fact that Roberts’ contract was just extended was a sign of the board’s confidence in his leadership, according to Mexicotte. “He’s the whole package,” she continued, “You can’t replace somebody like Todd Roberts – you just hope you can find someone as good.”
Satchwell echoed that sentiment, crediting Roberts with stabilizing a district fraught with conflict when he was hired, and establishing a strategic plan to carry AAPS forward. “He is a realist and a troubleshooter,” Satchwell said. “He is good at bridging, and has worked well with every corner of the district. He’s one of the most approachable guys in the world.”
In a phone call earlier today, long-time board member Glenn Nelson praised Roberts’ humility in creating a team atmosphere where people could truly work together productively. He also acknowledged Roberts’ role in getting the Comprehensive School Improvement Program (commonly known as “the Bond”) improvements back on track when he was hired in 2006, and by leading the district’s strategic planning process in a way that made it more useful than it had been previously. While allowing that he expects a smooth transition, Nelson admitted, “I very much regret his resignation. I think he’s been an excellent superintendent, and I’m sorry to see him leave.”
According to Mexicotte, Roberts will likely relocate to North Carolina before his family joins him. His wife, Arleen Song, is employed as a physician with the University of Michigan Health System, and is planning to stay in Ann Arbor while their older children begin the school year here, said Mexicotte. The couple has four children: Lucy, 8, Nicholas, 6; Christopher, 4; and Grace, 2.