Bob Gross: Finding the finish line
A school district employs a wide variety of people, ranging from teachers and educational assistants to cooks, bus drivers and janitors. But to the person at the top of the district, Brainerd Public Schools Interim Superintendent Bob Gross, only ...
A school district employs a wide variety of people, ranging from teachers and educational assistants to cooks, bus drivers and janitors.
But to the person at the top of the district, Brainerd Public Schools Interim Superintendent Bob Gross, only two people really matter: the educator and the student.
"It's the teacher and the learner," Gross said. "Anyone else that gets added better be adding value to that relationship between the teacher and the student. And if we're not adding value to that relationship, we have no business being here."
Gross's last day as interim superintendent is today, with new Superintendent Laine Larson starting Friday. Gross has worked in the district for 32 years, 19 of those as superintendent. Larson comes to the district from Thief River Falls Public Schools, where she has been superintendent since 2009.
Gross has been helping Larson with her transition to Brainerd, he said, which has included two days in the district and numerous phone calls and emails back and forth. Her excitement has Gross "feeling really good" about the transition, he said. The district also has strong administrative leaders, he said, including Director of Schools Willie Severson and Director of Business Services Steve Lund, who will help to make the transition smooth.
"These folks are so familiar with what the daily operations are like here," Gross said. "So I think the transition should be about as seamless as it can be."
What's immediately apparent about Larson is her outgoing nature, Gross said. She respects people and is a good listener, he said, which will help her establish trust and relationships in the district. She's also an experienced superintendent who understands the finances of a school district and its curriculum.
In July, the district's long-term facilities planning committee is expected to present a recommendation to the school board which will outline a plan for the district's facilities for the future. Gross and Larson have talked about the plan quite a bit, he said, and he's confident she'll be able to get comfortable with the plan. It's actually a benefit for her to come to the district at the end of this process, he said, as it's an exciting period for the district.
"We know that we're in competition with many regional centers across the state," Gross said. "And we need to present our community as best as we can."
Larson is planning to "have a great run" as superintendent in Brainerd and retire here, Gross said. She's planning to put down roots and to stay here, he said.
"Brainerd will always be the kind of community where superintendents can come here and feel like 'I can do the rest of my career here,'" Gross said.
Gross worked in Brainerd Public Schools from 1968-1999, serving as assistant high school principal, junior high principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent, a position he held from 1981-1999. From 1999 to 2007, he served as superintendent of schools at Singapore American School; from 2007-2012 as regional education officer for Europe with the Office of Overseas Schools-U.S. Department of State.
He came back to Brainerd to serve as interim superintendent for the 2015-16 year after former superintendent Klint Willert took the superintendent position for the Brookings School District in South Dakota. Willert, who started as Brainerd superintendent in July 2014, announced his resignation in May 2015.
The district Gross left in 1999 is different than the one he came back to. One of the biggest differences was the facilities, he said. Since he left, the district built Forestview Middle School, turned the Washington building into the Washington Educational Services Building, sold the Franklin building, which became the Franklin Arts Center, and closed the Whittier building.
There's also so many more state and federal regulations, Gross said, all of which need to be addressed. This requires more administrators to address data requests from the state and federal government.
"It's just amazing to me, frankly, how much more data they want supplied to them," Gross said. "So that was another rather eye-opening experience for me."
Gross had been in private education for 15 years, so he said he was surprised by the amount of data the state and federal government needed for various programs. People who wonder why administrative costs keep increasing need only look at the demands placed on school districts by the state and federal government, he said.
"It feels like you can get in more trouble for not having a report in place than you can for how effective you are in working with the child," Gross said.
All of these programs are well-intentioned, Gross said, but he finds it hard to see the value the data requests and information reporting add to the relationship between the teacher and the learner.
Public school finances right now are difficult to balance, Gross said. The number of students with special needs has also grown, he said, especially with the increased need to serve students from birth to age 5. There's long-term benefits to early identification of special needs, he said, but the extra support is still needed, which strains the district.
Two stops, two outlooks
Coming back for a one-year stint as superintendent, Gross said it was a great benefit to know the district as well as he does. There were immediate personnel needs he knew he could provide direction on, as well as other immediate tasks he could lend his perspective to.
When he came back to Brainerd, Gross said one of his goals was to work with Lund to get a better handle on the district's finances. Now with the benefit of hindsight, he said he overestimated his ability to address the district's deficit spending in a single year.
"I felt that we could accomplish that in a shorter period of time," Gross said. "But it's going to take a longer period of time to turn that around."
While he couldn't reverse the deficit spending in one year, Gross said he brought clarity to the issue by identifying what needs to be done. Personnel costs account for 80 percent of the district's budget, he said, so the district needs to negotiate with its personnel groups to keep those costs manageable.
"Can we get all groups to agree, that this is what we need to do?" Gross said.
Gross wanted to move existing initiatives forward during his time as interim superintendent, as well as make sure the district took the correct path when investing in technology. He said the district took a "giant step forward" during the year when it comes to technology. When he arrived, the district was starting to identify people to serve on the long-range facilities planning committee. Now, the committee is preparing its recommendation to the school board.
"I think we made tremendous progress in going forward with that," Gross said. "It wasn't just a little progress, it was huge."
Gross also needed to re-establish trust with employees in the district. He may have worked in the district for a long time, but he estimated 80 percent of the current employees weren't around when he left in 1999.
"You have to gain their confidence and their trust, and that takes a little while," Gross said.
Right after he came back, Gross admitted there was a feeling of wanting to remain in his post for more than a year, because he loves the community so much. But the feeling subsided once the school board found Larson, he said.
"This is going to be in good hands," Gross said. "From that perspective it made it much easier to let go."
Gross said he might have had more big surprises coming back to Brainerd if he hadn't been watching the community closely while he was gone. He estimated he checked the Brainerd Dispatch website once per week while he was away.
"If anything, it would have to be the amount of regulations," Gross said. "That would be the biggest thing that has happened that I wasn't aware of, because that's kind of a slow creep."
Gross helped restore the feeling among school staff that the district's central office can be trusted, he said, which was one of his goals when he came back to Brainerd. He tried to be visible in the school buildings, he said, to show the teachers he knows what they deal with every day.
"The teachers want to know that you have a good appreciation and understanding of what they're dealing with day in and day out," Gross said.
What comes next?
Gross, 73, revealed he turned down an offer last week to become the director of the American School of Warsaw in Poland. He said his wife, Judy, "wasn't ready for another one of these adventures."
"This is also my 50th anniversary, and I wanted to make it to 51," Gross joked.
In the short term, he and his wife are moving to Minneapolis to be closer to their only child and help take care of their two grandchildren. They'll keep their three-season lake cabin in the area, he said, so they'll be in the area frequently throughout the year.
After more than 50 years in education, Gross also wants to return to the classroom as a student and take university courses in things that interest him, like philosophy, history, geography and public policy.
"It's so intriguing to hear some of those discussions that take place with the young people," Gross said. "What is it that the young people are thinking? What are the discussions taking place in these classrooms?"
In the past, Gross mentioned past Brainerd superintendents Elliot Whoolery and Don Adamson served as his mentors. Now as he finishes his time as superintendent, Gross said he doesn't stack up to them, but still hopes people see the influence he had on the direction and quality of the school district.
"When I think about people like Elliot Woolery and Don Adamson, I don't know that I could ever measure up to that," Gross said. "I have such reverence for those folks and what I learned from them."
While the Brainerd High School football field is now named after Adamson, Gross said if the district wanted to name something after him, he'd want no part of it. Going back to the relationship between teachers and learners, he said he would instead hope the district would find a long-time educator to honor.
"I just would not ever want to see my name on a building," Gross said. "Take a look at a long-term teacher who's just revered and name it after an individual like that."
SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett .
This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Elliot Whoolery's last name. The Dispatch regrets the error.