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As retirement nears, East Aurora superintendent reflects on legacy

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Updated: July 10, 2013 6:36AM

AURORA — Jerome Roberts doesn’t have an easy time ahead of him as he prepares for his eighth and final year as superintendent of East Aurora School District.

The district is plagued with overcrowding issues, administrative changes in one-third of the school buildings, uncertain state aid allotments and a federal bullying investigation.

Academic achievement, though improving, is well below state averages. Last school year, four in 10 students failed to graduate on time and less than half of the third-graders met or exceeded state reading standards, compared to more than three-quarters statewide.

But Roberts, who has seen the district’s reputation hurt in the last year by insurance mishaps, credit card misuse and a botched transgender policy discussion, said in many ways the district is better off than when he took the reins in 2006.

That year, the district was $11 million in debt, Roberts said, and overspending by about $2 million a year. He said the district was one step away from needing the state to dole out its payments ahead of revenue collections — like a payday loan — to keep the district financially solvent.

“I hope they remember me for having straightened the finances out, because that had plagued the district for such a long period of time,” he said of his legacy.

Improvements since 1989

In addition to shoring up the district’s cash reserves, Roberts hopes to be remembered for expanding the magnet academy, implementing a community service graduation requirement and being a leader who would “do anything for the kids of East Aurora School District 131,” when he officially retires next June.

Roberts, 57, began his career in education 34 years ago as a middle school teacher in Joliet Public Schools. He went on to hold a number of administrative roles in Joliet and Lockport before serving as East Aurora High School’s principal from 1989 to 1993.

According to a news release issued by East Aurora after Roberts was appointed superintendent, he is credited with improving ACT scores and student attendance during his time at East High and creating a parent group that stood on corners to make sure students got to and from school safely.

Roberts said the decrease in crime in Aurora is one of the marked changes from his time at East High two decades ago, when the school had a “gang infestation.”

“We had a lot more expulsions because there were more criminal elements,” he said. “And that has essentially disappeared.”

After working at East High, Roberts went on to serve as principal of Downers Grove North High School, superintendent of Calument Park School District and superintendent of Fairmont School District, before returning to East Aurora in 2004.

He worked as director of secondary programs and assistant superintendent for school improvement and secondary programs before becoming the district’s top administrator.

Roberts said while East Aurora has gotten a bad rap over the years, it’s an issue of perception, which is difficult — though not impossible — to change. He said his work history has shown him the “same kinds of issues exist” in East Aurora as high-achieving, award-winning schools.

“It’s just that our [school] board has been transparent” in showing the issues, he said.

Master of zen

Though the president of the sitting school board, Annette Johnson, has developed a reputation for being a fiery individual who can be difficult to work with, Roberts said he finds working with Johnson “fun.”

“I don’t find it a challenge,” he said. “I love working with Annette. It’s like having a partner.”

Roberts, who has practiced martial arts for 47 years and yoga for about 5, got up to draw a yin-yang symbol on the whiteboard in his office as a metaphor for his relationship with Johnson. In Chinese philosophy, the yin-yang represents seemingly opposing forces that are actually interconnected and reliant upon one another.

“Without this, the universe doesn’t work,” he said. “The world is a big place for divergent kinds of people.”

Roberts said his cool-under-pressure demeanor has allowed him to get along with all kinds of people over his career and keep others calm in a “panic situation.”

This outlook also helped him keep criticisms rolling off his back in April when some school board candidates were calling for him to step down or work alongside an interim superintendent for the last year of his contract. They said he wasn’t an effective leader and that he let Johnson take over some of his responsibilities.

Roberts said dealing with criticisms like those “comes with the chair.”

“I’m an old guy,” he said. “If you sit in this chair long enough, you’re going to get somebody calling for your resignation. I challenge those kinds of critics to come talk with me. Or come and walk in my shoes for a little bit to get an idea of what the job is like.”

When Roberts ends his tenure as superintendent next summer, he doesn’t know what he plans to do. His existential philosophy of being able to “revel in uncertainty” is keeping him content to leave that next step an open-ended question.

“I’m not planning anything, but life will send me what I’m supposed to do and where I’m supposed to do it,” he said. “There’s an old saying that life is what happens when you’re planning. I’m going to see what life brings me.”

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