ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Q&A with IASB's new executive director
Interview by Gary Adkins
Gary Adkins is director of editorial services for IASB
Thomas E. Bertrand joined IASB as executive director on July 1, 2018. A 33-year educator, Bertrand comes to the Association after 26 years at Rochester CUSD 3A, where he served as high school and elementary principal, then assistant superintendent for three years before becoming superintendent. He served 16 years as Rochester’s superintendent before his retirement at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year.
Bertrand was raised in Quincy, and earned his undergraduate degree from Quincy College, Master’s from Western Illinois University, and Ph.D. from Illinois State University. Bertrand and his wife Michelle are the parents of Nathan, Erica, and Connor. Nathan is a JAG (Judge Advocate General Corps) judicial officer in the United States Marine Corps, stationed in North Carolina. Erica is a cosmetologist in Springfield . Connor just completed his first year at the University of Illinois.
Q: What background and experience do you believe was instrumental in your selection as IASB executive director?
A: When I came to the Rochester school district 26 years ago, I never would have envisioned it. I think gaining experience at all levels of school leadership helped. My long tenure there is a testament to the importance of developing the types of relationships that are vital to successful leadership. I was named Illinois Superintendent of the Year in 2015, and I suppose that helped. I considered that honor as recognition for our staff, schools, and community. Our board, staff, and our teachers helped to prepare me for increasing responsibility.
I also served as an adjunct professor of Education Leadership at three different institutions. I obtained training as a leader ship coach and served in that capacity for the Illinois School of Advanced Leadership during the past eight years.
Q: What does the Illinois Association of School Boards organization have among its accomplishments and objectives that made you wish to become IASB’s executive director?
A: IASB has a good brand. As a superintendent I observed firsthand the high quality and variety of services and products the Association offers. The staff is excellent, with high-quality people who are creative and committed. Overall it is just a good place.
Q: Where do you hope to see IASB positioned on organizational, policy, and political issues in the future, in comparison to where the organization stands today? Where do you wish to take the Association?
A: My vision is in line with the Association’s vision statement. It revolves around five Es: Envision, Evolve, Engage, Educate, and Empower. Leadership is not about having all the right answers. It’s about influencing others to do the work that needs to be done on behalf of our membership. It is also about building the capacity of others. If a leader can do those two things, he or she can move an organization forward to meet new challenges.
Q: As a part-time legislative advocate for Illinois school districts in the past few years, you participated in successful efforts of various kinds, such as advocating for the funding reform bill that was adopted last year. What was your takeaway from that experience?
A: I learned over time that it takes relentless advocacy to get results. For example, soon after I became a superintendent, I led a 24-district coalition of school leaders from districts that had been promised school construction grants from the state. We had to return to Springfield many times to advocate for officials to fund the promised grants, which had been delayed for several years. Rochester was the first district to finally receive that promised state funding, and I learned then it takes great tenacity and a clear message to get good results.
Q: Given your background in education, administration, advocacy, and communications, what can IASB do to better educate everyone about the work public schools do and the challenges school leaders face?
A: We must work with our members to tell the story about their districts. There are plenty of interest groups who are happy to tell a story about public education, but it may not be accurate or reflect what is important to local schools. It is critical that local school leaders tell their stories to their own communities. Share the good news and the success of your students and staff.
Q: What more should the state do to help schools and school leaders?
A: Make a commitment to adequately fund the new school funding formula. That would go a long way towards helping schools. Then, too, showing a commitment to support educational equity is essential. We need to make sure that the quality of education a student receives is not dependent upon where they live. All students deserve a good education.
Q: How do you assess U.S. education policy today and the direction it is taking?
A: Our students are more than a test score. While others aim to reduce school quality and student performance to a number, it is critical that we push back against that narrative. We must tell our story about how we are serving every child who comes to us. We must advocate for equal access to educational opportunities, to rigorous standards and curriculum for every child, and for the funding necessary to support our students. We must push back against efforts to divert funds away from public schools. The future of democracy in this country is tied to healthy public schools.
Q: What insights has your local school district experience given you into how the Association serves a wide variety of school districts?
A: The Association has done very well. I have observed it while serving on the board of directors of another statewide association, and I have seen IASB do a really good job of advocacy in cooperation with other statewide groups to support school districts.
Q: Illinois’ students are among the nation’s most diverse. How well is the state performing in preparing all students for success and ensuring equity?
A: Educational equity is one more thing that the new school funding law addresses and can support. As I have stated, however, the funding law must be funded adequately in order for it to function to help achieve the equity we need.
Q: What do you think about state implementation of the ESSA law to date? Do you have concerns with the state-level preparations and regulations so far?
A: Some of the changes occurring under the reform law may not be what is best for teachers and students. I think it is going to be imperative that local school districts input their local stories on ESSA implementation, and share their story with local taxpayers.
Q: What about the state’s new funding law: what can be done to make sure that it works as planned?
A: Fund it! The funding law will only work if it is adequately funded by the state. Then, too, I think it will be most effective if local decision makers develop effective local plans and maintain local control.
Q: IASB recently led members in an assessment of the Association’s effectiveness, surveying members on their concerns and priorities for their Association. What’s your assessment of where we stand today?
A: Overall, members are very satisfied with the services and support offered by IASB. Yet, past success is no guarantee of future success. It is important that we consistently assess what our members want from IASB and whether the organization is meeting members’ needs. Member feedback is important to a continuous improvement cycle.
Q: Finally, an open-ended question: What do you wish to add, or what would you like to explain or say to Journal readers and Association members and supporters?
A: First, [outgoing Executive Director] Roger Eddy has done a great service to the Association these past years, and he has spent quite a few days helping me get oriented to the post of Executive Director of IASB, and I look forward to taking on the responsibilities of leading the Association. I am excited by the opportunity to serve the school districts of our state, and to stay involved in public education. I have a lot of energy and a strong commitment to move the Association forward.
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