IBJ Q&A: new Madison County Regional Superintendent Rob Werden

Rob Werden was sworn in as Madison County regional superintendent of schools on July 1.

IBJ: It’s been a whirlwind since the first day, hasn’t it?

Werden: Non-stop from the first day when we had the pomp and circumstance of the swearing in. Family members and folks came around to congratulate us. I was very appreciative of the way it was handled. Then, we got right down to work before noon that day.

We had a staff meeting the second day, and I explained my expectations. We did a SWOT analysis — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. When I was on the board of directors for Madison Service Co., they were big on those. I tried to make sure we had input from all the folks here. I wanted to know what their strengths were.

IBJ: Individually or as a group?

Werden: As a team.

IBJ: What did they say?

Werden: We had it on an easel, and we started filling up the strengths pretty quickly. Abilities, teamwork, accountable, caring and compassionate, quality programs, financial staff, communications.

IBJ: What about weaknesses?

Werden: Somebody said we could do better communicating within the departments, so that went on both categories. And then someone said we had to work on a better understanding of who we are and who we serve.

IBJ: I would say the lion’s share of the public can’t answer that question either. What is the regional office and who do they serve?

Werden: I heard that during the campaign. I think a lot of that was due to no contested elections for a lot of years. It kind of flew under the radar.

But when you see the reach this office has, it’s pretty impressive. They serve as a liaison, a go-between, between Springfield and all the rules and regulations and statutes that are mandated by our legislature. Most of them are well intentioned, but when they go into implementation and they come into our schools, sometimes they have results that weren’t intended. So, we’re kind of the front line, bringing those rules from Springfield into the schools.

IBJ: How many schools are there?

Werden: There are 13 school districts, and 20 nonpublic schools. That equates to about 40,000 public school students and about 4,500 on the private school side of things.

IBJ: How many school buildings?

Werden: (consults an assistant, who tells him 75 buildings).

IBJ: Give us a little background coming into the job.

Werden: Twenty-five years in education. I taught for 18 years in the classroom. The first year I taught in Highland, then I taught for two in Litchfield and 15 in Staunton. I taught high school agriculture and coached some sports. Then I went into administration where I was at Edwardsville High School.  My specialization then went from just agriculture to all of the five areas of career and technical education, which includes business, family and consumer science (formerly home economics), health occupations and industrial arts.  This job takes me to every other aspect of education — early childhood, pre-K, adult education, elementary education.

IBJ: You grew up in Edwardsville?

Werden: I grew up in Prairietown. I went to Edwardsville schools and graduated the high school in ’88. I went to Blackburn College in Carlinville for a year and a half before I switched to SIU Carbondale and got my degree in agriculture.

I worked two years in Springfield for the Sangamon County Farm Bureau before I went into education.

IBJ: You’re bringing a lot to the table in terms of vocational education. That’s a big concern because of cuts.

Werden: It started back in the ’70s. We began pushing kids to four-year colleges as the only way to improve your life. In fact, there was a poster on the wall that said, “Work Smart, Not Hard.” Mike Rowe (host of TV’s “Dirty Jobs” and a big promoter of voc-ed) has modified that to “Work Smart — and Hard.”

When I was in the classroom I wanted the kids to learn to use both their heads and their hands. If you can do that, you’ll be fine.

Four-year colleges aren’t always the answer. Now, there is a huge demand in the labor force and that’s causing the pendulum to swing back. I see a renewed emphasis in local districts, and I think we’re going to see some great things happen in the near future as far as trying to prepare kids for jobs where they use both their head and their hands.

IBJ: The business community is getting behind those concepts

Werden: We need to work together on partnerships that benefit both business and education. Education has changed, just like the world has changed. Chalkboards have been replaced by smartboards. Kids are carrying around full libraries of knowledge in their laptops.

IBJ: It’s not just the technology changes. It’s also the outside influences. Drug problems, and violence.

Werden: We focus on what we’re good at, which is education. But you have to be able to work with other agencies to provide a safe environment.

IBJ: What kind of budget does your office work with?

Werden: Basically, we’ve got about $4 million from the state and about $500,000 from the county. The state money is in the form of grants.

IBJ: What’s your take on how Springfield settled on financing education?

Werden: Between the budget and the capital bill, it’s some of the largest increases we’ve seen in a long time. The conservative in me says, how are we going to pay for all that? If you want nice things you have to pay for them, but at the same time the state is losing people daily because they feel like they are overtaxed. One of my biggest roles is to remind districts that these dollars are tax dollars and we have to use them as efficiently as possible.

IBJ: In terms of education, what are some of your biggest, current challenges?

Werden: We mentioned safety, that would have to be No. 1. We’ve got infrastructure in some school districts that could use improvements in buildings. If we get a little bit of money, I think you’ll see some improvements being made. Other challenges would be the vocational programs we need to bring back in play. And those are not cheap. Welding equipment, CNC machines. That may be an opportunity, too, where you can build relationships with business and industry to partner with them to bring in or purchase equipment.

One of the biggest tasks we have in education is training kids for jobs that don’t even exist right now. Think back 30 years ago, the internet wasn’t around. Now, it’s changed our world. There are other jobs out there, unknown to us now. We need to have transferable skills that kids can take with them into careers that give them the flexibility to change career paths as opportunities arise.

IBJ: How many do you have on staff?

Werden: We have roughly 20 folks. Some are full time, some are part time. Some are union county or nonunion county employees. But they are all ROE employees and work for the Office of Education. I have a statute that shows how counties are charged with helping facilitate this office.

IBJ: I’m guessing you heard this on the campaign trail, but what do you say to people who feel that the regional superintendent of school offices are an unnecessary layer of government?

Werden: I would like to invite them to come in and I would show them it’s not. “Unnecessary” is a strong word. When you see the statutes that mandate what this office is responsible for, you’d change your mind.

The management as far as teacher licenses, professional development … we are an efficient machine. If we were not in place, folks at the Illinois Board of Education would have to do those jobs and I like to think that we at the county level are a lot more efficient than what they would be coming in from Springfield.

IBJ: How bad is the teacher shortage in these parts?

Werden: In career technical education, it’s been bad for 25 years. We are having a difficult time finding shop teachers, ag teachers. People with those in-demand skills can go into business and industry and make good money. Then, you have to have the patience to be a teacher, and that component goes with it.

When the shortage became noticeable in science, math and the core areas, then everybody started screaming louder. It used to be you’d get 30 or 40 applications for one position. Now you get five or six. There are certain places in Southern Illinois, depending how much they pay, you’re going to have a hard time filling those positions.

Substitute teachers are even more difficult to find.

IBJ: In a way you’ve got some big shoes to fill. Three regional supers who preceded you held this job for years and years. Gene Briggs, Harry Briggs and Bob Daiber.

Werden: In my first meeting with Dr. Daiber, I told him I felt like the person who played right field after Babe Ruth retired. There’s a history of tradition here, and a lot of excellence.

IBJ: You could have been a step closer to retirement. Why did you choose to run for an office where predecessors have had the jobs for years at a time?

Werden: Why would I run for office? When I was about 5, my dad brought me home a book on the presidents. That sparked in me an interest in politics. And I look at this job as about 50 percent politics and 50 percent education. That was a great fit for me personally.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally ran in our August print edition. If you have a suggestion for a Q&A involving business and civic leaders in Metro East, contact Dennis Grubaugh, dgrubaugh@ibjonline.com

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