Don R. Roberts, a longtime urban school district superintendent and a former Arkansas Department of Education chief under Govs. Bill Clinton and Frank White, died Tuesday in Little Rock.
He was 77 and had suffered in recent years from cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, said Jan Roberts, his wife of 54 years.
The Little Rock School District’s newest school, a 2-year-old, state-of-the-art elementary school for 800 pupils in northwest Little Rock, is named for Roberts.
Roberts, of Columbia County, periodically roamed far from the Natural State to serve in the military or practice his profession, only to return when those from home called.
Most recently, in 1996, at the behest of Little Rock business leaders, Roberts came out of retirement in Texas — where he had been superintendent of the Amarillo and Fort Worth public schools — to serve for more than a year as interim superintendent in the Little Rock district.
He said at the time that the district appeared to be dying on the vine — strangled by litigation, declining enrollment and general ill will. He asked the School Board and a federal judge to declare a time-out — or, as he used to call it as a child playing games in McNeil, a King’s X — in the monitoring of the district’s complex desegregation plan.
The federal judge approved the hiatus, giving the district and lawyers for black students the time they needed to negotiate a revised, streamlined desegregation plan that laid out the district’s path for winning release from federal court supervision. That release occurred in 2007.
Jan Roberts said Tuesday that her husband was delighted to return to the Little Rock district, where he had worked 22 years before.
“He had retired and we were going to get to do some things,” Jan Roberts said. “But when [Little Rock real estate developer] Rett Tucker called him about this job, he didn’t say one word to me, he just said ‘yes.’
“That was the icing on the cake for him, coming back to the Little Rock School District. It was such a joy for him.”
Little Rock Superintendent Morris Holmes on Tuesday called Roberts a lifelong friend for whom he had worked in Little Rock, at the Arkansas Department of Education, and in Fort Worth.
Holmes said Roberts was serious about educating children, fair in dealing with students and parents, and instrumental in improving instruction through initiatives such as the Program for Effective Teaching that was taught to Arkansas teachers in the 1980s.
Little Rock School Board President Jody Carreiro on Tuesday called Roberts “a legend and hero in the public education community of Arkansas.”
Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service, was a School Board member at the time of Roberts’ return to Arkansas.
“[Roberts] was an effective and highly respected leader who brought people together by championing common ground,” Rutherford said.
Barbara Anderson-Tegethoff, principal of Roberts Elementary, called Roberts — a tall man who spoke in a very thoughtful, deliberate manner — “a gentle giant” who was viewed as a “rock star” by Roberts pupils, who annually celebrated his Halloween birthday with parades.
Roberts’ college years at what is now Henderson State University were interrupted with two years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Upon his return, he was student body president and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in social studies.
Roberts taught a year in Welch, La., before moving to Oregon, where he became a superintendent at age 29.
The family returned to Arkansas where Roberts was an assistant superintendent in Little Rock from 1967-74. He is credited with designing and implementing the district’s federal court-ordered, cross-town busing system for desegregation in 1971.
“One day we had one bus for transporting orthopedically handicapped kids,” Roberts recalled in 1996. “Seventeen days later we were busing 11,000 kids.”
He left Little Rock to be superintendent in Newport News, Va., but returned to head the Arkansas Department of Education from 1979-1984.
During his tenure, a statewide student testing program began, as did gifted and talented education, including the Governor’s School for Gifted and Talented. The Education Department began assisting schools in acquiring and using computers.
Roberts was closely linked to education initiatives of the Clinton administration, including new state standards.
Roberts was at the department when the state’s contentious teacher testing law was enacted in 1983. Despite his own opposition to making veteran teachers pass a basic skills test to keep their jobs, Roberts said he would implement the test because it was law.
He got the process started but became superintendent in Amarillo, Texas, in 1984 before the teacher test was actually given in 1985.
(From the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)