Dr. Shane Robbins has been superintendent at Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation in Fortville since 2015. In 2014 the district had a negative general fund cash balance of $4.2 million and was unsuccessful in its request to Indiana’s Distressed Unit Appeal Board for assistance. Robbins began an aggressive approach to save money in non-instructional areas. By forcing all vendors to competitively bid, eliminating duplicated services and seeking out ways to increase revenue streams, the district’s financial condition has dramatically improved. The district now has a General Fund cash balance of around $1.8 million and projects to end the year with a $2.5 million balance. The district has been able to increase pay for teachers and other staff. In a rare move, the district has opted not to levy the allowed tax rate for the third and final year of its 2013 operating funds referendum.
Jim: What programs or activities that focus on improving student learning do you feel are the most successful in your school district?
Shane: We don’t focus on one program or activity, rather a collective approach of activities and programs designed to best meet the needs of all students. We are particularly proud of our 1:1 computing environment whereby we utilized a blended approach. Our teachers are getting better daily at finding a healthy balance between traditional instructional delivery methods and technology based instructional methods. The goal is to utilize a 21st century learning environment to maximize student engagement and increase efficiency by being able to remediate and accelerate students within the same classroom, all with the primary goal of increasing student achievement. We have flipped classrooms, put computer devices in the hands of all students, increased our STEM initiatives and most recently added Wi-Fi access to our entire fleet of school buses.
Jim: What have been your most significant challenges as a superintendent and how have you dealt with them?
Shane: Some of the biggest challenges have been navigating through the things that are out of my control. In previous positions it was trying to work in a declining district with a declining budget that still possessed the same demands. Currently it is working in a school budget that although the district is growing the circuit breaker laws create challenges in our property tax generated funds. However, the biggest, and for me most significant, challenge has been trying to assist my district in navigating through the quality continuous improvement process when the state relies on such unreliable and lagging student achievement data. As a district, we have focused on alternative assessments, the use of data rooms/walls, and other long-term school and district goals to drive our quality continuous improvement process. It has allowed our staff to remain somewhat positive and yet focused on what is important and that is providing opportunities for our students.
Jim: If you could improve one aspect of K-12 Education today, what would it be and what changes would you make?
Shane: I don’t know if there is one aspect I would change; however, it is a toss-up between the funding of public education and the over-assessment of our children. I am a firm believer in accountability and assessment processes; however, I don’t believe it should become such a priority that it minimizes the opportunities for developing the creativeness and imagination of young learners. Personally, I would shorten the length of the summative assessment, ensure it was properly able to be implemented digitally, and minimize the turnaround time so that teachers, administrators, and parents could make informed decisions on both instruction and what may be in the best interest of the student for the upcoming school year.
Jim: What advice would you give to aspiring or beginning superintendents?
Shane: Look at every day as an opportunity to make a positive difference in the life of someone. That someone might be a student, but it might also be a secretary, custodian, teacher, administrator, or parent. For me, this job is completely about service and the gratitude I get is knowing I might be making a positive impact on someone or some group. Finally, I found that I have to make it a point to block my schedule every week to visit all of my buildings. Some weeks it simply is not possible, but I make an attempt. I do not want the people in the district I serve to think I make decisions in an ivory tower. I attend our staff PLC’s, I visit classrooms, and I make myself visible. Some days I take my laptop with me and work in one of our buildings. For me, it is a part of who I am and how I serve and lead.