Big on Teamwork in Schools Leadership; but Duval Superintendent Finalist Described as Light on Fiery Inspiration

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Byline: Matt Soergel

If Dale Robbins is picked to be Duval County's next school superintendent, expect a leadership style that's big on teamwork, with a new school chief who seems to be invariably described as a nice guy.

Yet is he tough enough to take on the challenges that would face him in Jacksonville?

Yes, says Linda Boyd. She's principal of Twin Rivers Middle School in Georgia's Gwinnett County, where Robbins was most recently one of two associate superintendents.

"I think he's more than prepared," Boyd said. "He can have empathy, but if he believes that this is what needs to be done for kids, well then that's what needs to be done."

He also has the backing of his former boss, Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks, who in August described Robbins this way: "He can stomp your toe, but he won't mess up your shoe shine."

Robbins, who spent 16 years moving up through Gwinnett's system, is one of three finalists for Duval's superintendent position.

Gwinnett is a diverse, rapidly growing area in suburban Atlanta, the 14th-largest district in the country. Its schools are often praised, and in 2010 it won a prestigious award for closing the achievement gap between minority and white children.

Marlyn Tillman wasn't overly impressed by that.

Though her children have graduated from Gwinnett schools in suburban Atlanta, she remains involved in school issues. Over the past few years, she had some dealings with Robbins - always pleasant, she said, but not always productive.

Tillman once gave a presentation aimed at trying to get more black history studied in school. Robbins, she said, told her it was a "nice presentation," but that's as far as it went.

Tillman said the system's administration under Wilbanks, head there since 1996, encourages a "locked-down" environment where sensitive issues are dismissed or pushed aside.

"I can't say I got any different feeling from [Robbins]," she said.

Yet even she called Robbins a "people-pleaser," quick to ask how she was doing, how her kids were doing. If he were a superintendent, he would probably look for a way to build relationships among those invested in Duval's schools.

Tillman's children weren't in schools under Robbins' leadership, either when he was a principal or an area superintendent.

But she heard good reports from others.

"I know he was well liked in the community he was in," she said. "I do know that I've heard some good things from parents about the school climate. Better than the experience we were in."

R. Marshall Boutwell heads a credit union that is a major sponsor of the Gwinnett County Public Schools Foundation, a nonprofit supporting the county's schools. …