Lebanon superintendent looks back at nearly nine years with district
|Published: 06-18-2023 7:09 PM
LEBANON — Joanne Roberts took the reins of the Lebanon School District at first on an interim basis in August 2014 amid a leadership vacuum.
She took over one month after the departure of Gail Paludi, who had been Lebanon’s superintendent for four years before resigning effective the end of June 2014. Paludi’s exit coincided with that of then-Lebanon High School Principal Nan Parsons, and then Business Administrator Jim Fenn left that August.
Roberts, who arrived in Lebanon after having served as director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for SAU 70, which serves Hanover and Norwich schools, said in an interview last week that she and the other new administrators first sought to determine what each of their strengths were and then to fill in the gaps with training as necessary.
“No leader can work in isolation,” she said over lunch at 110 Grill in West Lebanon. “Building capacity is something that I believe in.”
Roberts, who earned a salary of $150,000 this year, described herself as “very much a systems person” and said she embraced the opportunity to “work with other administrators and staff to build a sense of community.”
Now, as she is preparing to depart the post at the end of this month, Roberts attributed the district’s improvement in the U.S. News and World Report rankings from outside of the top 20 when she began to within the top 10 now — Lebanon High School is currently seventh in the state, second only to Hanover High on the New Hampshire side of the Upper Valley — in part to building the systems necessary to make the district’s 1,600 students and 360 employees feel supported.
Pointing to the city at large, business leaders, the public health workers and area Rotary clubs, she said: “It really does take a community to support a school.”
In a PowerPoint presentation Roberts gave to the School Board at her last meeting with the board in May, she provided a long list of accomplishments, including developing a mission statement; a three-year strategic plan; a diversity, inclusion and equity statement; and multi-year facilities and technology improvement plans.
Speaking of the strategic plan, which the district hadn’t previously had, former School Board Chairman Richard Milius said, “That was not a top-down thing. It was really created and fleshed out by the people in the trenches that had to implement it.”
Milius, who stepped off the board earlier this year after serving for a decade, was on the hiring committee when Roberts was first hired.
“I think we were already one of the better-performing districts in terms of student achievements in New Hampshire,” Milius said. “(Under Robert’s watch), that has been steadily improving.”
In Roberts’ PowerPoint presentation to the board, she noted that Lebanon students met or exceeded state average proficiency levels on standardized tests in math, English, language arts and science. They also test above both the state and national averages on the SAT, and the number of students taking and scoring 3 or above on advanced placement tests has increased in recent years.
Milius credited her with bringing “a really high level of professionalism” to the role. He also said Roberts used data to inform her decisions and she “spent a lot of time being supportive and empowering to staff.”
In particular, Milius said he couldn’t remember that any of the district’s unions had issued a formal grievance during Roberts’ tenure because staff knew they could call her to work through challenges. She also was able to support staff through anxiety they might have felt related to the state’s ”divisive concepts” law and school safety concerns.
“We’ve got a real political minefield here in New Hampshire,” Milius said. “... Joanne has remained engaged there and done what she could to minimize the anxiety that particularly our teachers felt.”
Lebanon High English teacher George Hanna, who serves as vice president of the Lebanon Education Association and has worked in the district for 16 years, credited both Roberts and the School Board, “to a degree,” with serving as a buffer to “very reactionary, aggressive tactics by the New Hampshire Legislature.”
That buffer, Hanna said, has allowed teachers to remain focused on helping students learn and feel safe and supported at school.
The leadership vacuum before Roberts’ arrival had left morale low, Hanna said. He said Roberts brought morale up by “increasing communication and keeping the channels of communication open.”
“Our association works really hard at making sure we maximize student learning,” Hanna said. “I think Dr. Roberts recognized that good morale among the staff was key.”
Hanna also credited Roberts with managing “as best she could” through the “unprecedented” challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the competing interests that arose during it.
He also said he appreciated Roberts seeing the district through this past school year, which he said marked a return to normalcy.
Her time in Lebanon was not without controversy. In recent years the school resource officer position, which is filled through a contract with the Lebanon Police Department, has been up for debate. In both 2021 and 2022, Lebanon voters approved nonbinding warrant articles to eliminate the position, but the School Board has consistently voted to retain it.
“I think Joanne tried as much as possible not to take sides in that debate,” Milius said. “It’s tough.”
In the past, Milius said the principals have been supportive of the SRO position as a way to ensure school safety. But, he noted, that the board’s configuration has changed, and it may make a different decision the next time a contract comes up.
In the 110 Grill interview, Roberts said the SRO has “really developed positive working relationships with our district social worker.” The social worker position was new this past year.
“They’ve partnered together to help support a lot of students,” she said.
Roberts struggled to get public support for a bond to support renovations at Mt. Lebanon School and at the high school and Hanover Street School. After three previous failed votes, voters finally approved a $14.3 million bond in March 2022.
“They were able to get passed in large part because we had access to COVID money,” Milius said.
Now the renovations at Mt. Lebanon School in West Lebanon, which included a new kitchen and larger nurse’s office, are scheduled for completion this summer. Meanwhile, the high school and Hanover Street School renovations, which include improvements to the front entrance, a new cafeteria for Hanover Street and new classrooms, have recently broken ground and are expected to be completed by fall 2024.
Hanna, for his part, said the renovations were necessary, but Roberts didn’t allow the focus on facilities to shift her attention from the district’s mission.
“The building and renovation can start to become too much of the focus,” Hanna said. “I think Joanne did a good job of making sure she was also focused on people.”
On the people side, Roberts remains mum on the reasons behind the departure this spring of Lebanon High Assistant Principal Kieth Matte, who had been Lebanon High’s boys basketball coach since 1997.
“I can’t discuss a personnel matter,” she said. “In the Upper Valley there’s been a lot of administrative changes and switches. I think that’s par for the course.”
For her part, Roberts announced last May that she would be departing at the end of this school year in order to give the School Board sufficient time to conduct a search and find a successor. The School Board selected Amy Allen, an assistant superintendent in the Manchester School District, in February.
Roberts said her departure is motivated by her search for “a new avenue in which to serve” and “there wasn’t any negativity or burnout. I just felt the timing was right.”
She is serving as a consultant for Vital Communities’ Early Childhood Education Initiative, which aims to bring a diverse group of stakeholders together to advocate for high quality, affordable child care for ages birth to 5.
“We are seeing this from the lens of businesses (that) can’t hire people because there’s no child care,” Roberts said. “Connect that with housing; it’s very hard.”
Her work also is focused on supporting professionals in the field who are “barely making it.”
In addition to that work, Roberts also has created a two-day course called Agile for Education, which applies Agile Scrum, a method used by technology companies to streamline product development, to educational processes such as strategic planning and curriculum development. She plans to launch the course at a conference later this month.
“We’re very excited about it,” she said.
In terms of passing the torch in Lebanon, Roberts said she has given Allen her cellphone number so the new leader can reach out if necessary: “I want the district to continue in a positive direction.”
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.