Retiring Superintendent Robertson bids farewell to Mendon School District

Diane Robertson, superintendent of the Mendon School District for the past 19 years, talks with staff members Friday during a breakfast on her last day of work before retirement. (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
Posted: May. 25, 2013 12:45 am Updated: Jun. 8, 2013 2:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

MENDON, Ill. -- Diane Robertson said farewell Friday to the place she has made a professional home for the past 19 years.

Robertson spent her last day as superintendent of the Mendon School District, a job she has held since 1994. Late Friday night, she turned over the keys and computer passwords to her successor, Brian Kurz.

Though Robertson is now officially retired, she won't be idle for long.

"I've got about seven or eight possibilities on the table to pick and choose from," she said.

One thing she will continue to do is work part time helping the School Exec Connect search firm find replacements for superintendents who resign, retire or get fired. She's been doing that already for a couple of years.

But there's one thing Robertson promises she won't be doing in her retirement: "I will not be an interim superintendent anywhere," she said. "I want a breather from being on call 24-7, 365 days a year."

Robertson has been a superintendent for 23 of her 34 years in education. The Camp Point native knew early on what she wanted to do.

While Robertson was being interviewed in 1979 for her first teaching position at the Southeastern School District, the superintendent at that time -- Gerhard Jung -- asked what her goal was for 10 years down the road.

"I told him I wanted his job," Robertson said. "I eventually got it."

Robertson initially taught junior high language arts for eight years before moving to Hamilton to become a middle school principal for two years. She then worked two years as high school/junior high principal for the Northwestern School District (now part of West Prairie). She then moved back to Hamilton in 1991 to become superintendent -- a post she held for three years before landing the job at Mendon, replacing Gerhard Jung himself.

When she first became a superintendent 23 years ago, Robertson was one of only five or six woman serving as superintendents in Illinois.

"There's a whole lot more now," Robertson said, estimating that roughly 30 or 40 percent of the jobs are now held by women.

She also noted it's been unusual for her to stay at Mendon 19 years. Typically, she said, superintendents on average stay at one location for a little more than three years.

But Robertson never wanted to leave Mendon. She found it a perfect fit and insists the community is the reason she stayed 19 years.

"It's a great community," she said. "They are very supportive of education. They're very supportive of the staff that work with their kids. Also the staff has worked together like a family."

Robertson also said she's has been fortunate to work with "a wonderful School Board" that gave her freedom to do the job as she saw fit.

"The School Board has set the parameters and the overarching policies and goals, and they've allowed the workers to do the job and get it done," she said. "That's made it pleasurable to work here."

But running a school district hasn't been easy during lean financial times -- especially when the state fails to meet its obligations to pay Illinois school districts on time.

"If we were not being pro-rated by the funding that the state should be giving us, we would have balanced budgets every year," Robertson said.

But Robertson has persevered and kept the Mendon School District on a sound financial footing, even though some tough budget cuts have been needed over the years.

But even during tight financial times, Robertson wasn't afraid to be innovative. One of her biggest accomplishments involved bringing a one-to-one learning initiative to Mendon schools in 2011, putting laptops in the hands all upper-grade students and many in lower grades.

"Technology has probably been my biggest accomplishment here in the district," she said. "We started way back in 1995. We were one of the first school districts to put a computer in every single classroom. We've been growing it ever since."

Robertson said she has tried to make the district an enjoyable place by making employees and parents feel they have a say in what goes on.

"I've always sought their opinions and their suggestions and ideas and tried to listen to all of those and make the best decisions with everybody having a say," Robertson said.

"When we negotiate teacher contracts, we do them pleasantly. We do them quietly. The last three years we negotiated our contracts in one day. The negotiations are pleasant, they're respectful, they're professional. We just sit around the table and talk it out," she said.

"My teachers and staff aren't the highest-paid people, but they get a decent wage and they have a decent contract, and the atmosphere is like everybody is working together."