Laws Leaves CB With No Regrets
After 30 years with the Central Bucks School District, superintendent Robert Laws is calling it a career.
The photos have been taken down, the books packed away.
And when Robert Laws walks out the glass doors at 20 Welden Dr. on Friday, it will be for the last time as the man with his hand on the rudder of the Central Bucks School District.
After 20 years as Central Bucks superintendent, and 10 before that as director of pupil services, Dr. N. Robert Laws is calling it a career.
During his tenure, a modest district in the suburbs of Philadelphia has grown into the third largest school district in the state of Pennsylvania. Despite that massive growth, student test scores have increased, the district's schools consistently rank among the best in the state and the country and graduates routinely move on to some of the best colleges nationwide.
Laws reflected on his career with Central Bucks this week, talking about the things he would miss the most - the people - and the things he would miss the least - board meetings.
He talked about the incredible changes that took place in the Central Bucks area, the school district, and the field of education since he became superintendent in 1992.
But most of all, he talked about how proud he is of the teachers who walk into the district's 23 schools every day and the children who meet them in those classrooms.
The most important measure of success in the district, for parents, students, teachers and taxpayers, can be summed up in two related figures, he said.
"My accountability is simple: I’ve got the highest test scores and lowest cost per pupil" in Bucks County, Laws said. "Love me or hate me, that’s the bottom line."
Laws has been making the rounds lately, visiting the schools to say goodbye.
At Linden Elementary, in Doylestown Borough, this week, Laws sat in a wicker chair and read "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" to Mike Wolf's morning kindergarten class.
These 20 children most likely will never know his name. But the education they will receive over the next 13 years will be due in no small part to the work that Laws has done - the teachers he hired, the training programs he put into place, the standards he endorsed, the thinking he encouraged.
If that sounds like a lot of credit to give to one man, it is. But those who have worked with him over the years say it is more than well-deserved.
"From Day 1, he has had a vision for this district. I have never worked with anyone who has had that vision, and who gives us the tools we need to achieve the vision," said Amanda Mumford, who was first a teacher and now principal of Pine Run Elementary in New Britain during Laws' tenure.
"He is the biggest advocate for children and children’s learning that I’ve ever met."
A Period of Growth
Laws began his career in education as a high school biology teacher in 1972. He then became a school psychologist and director of pupil services at a district in Allegheny County.
He didn't even know where Doylestown was when he saw a job posting for director of pupil services for Central Bucks in 1982. After a second interview, and a tour that included Barley Sheaf Farm bed and breakfast, Peddler's Village, and the borough of Doylestown, he and his wife were hooked.
Central Bucks had only about 8,000 students and about a dozen schools then, he said. But the district's nine municipalities covered 125 square miles - and they were home to open fields that were just ripe for development.
In 1992, when Laws became superintendent, the district had 11,182 students. That figure soon began to swell.
"That’s when we started importing children from the galaxy," Laws said. "Over a 10 year span, we built eight schools."
Housing developments began popping up like the rows of corn they replaced on what had been farms in places like Buckingham, Warrington and Warwick townships. By 2000, Central Bucks had 17,305 students. Enrollment peaked in 2009 at 20,456 students.
Average student test scores often fall as school districts grow. That didn't happen under Laws.
"Despite all the growth, despite all the things that come with growth, he never let the academic mission slide," said Kevin Munnelly, principal of Central Bucks High School West, who has worked under Laws since 1991. "He could have easily busied himself completely with all the issues that a district has to deal with when it has to grow that large, that quickly. But he constantly kept the academic mission in mind."
As the district grew, and students continued to achieve high marks, others began to take note.
In 2000, Laws was named Pennsylvania's Superintendent of the Year. In 2005, the Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce named him Bucks County's Ambassador of the Year, noting that good schools make it easier for local businesses to attract top talent.
"In all the years I have known Bob Laws, at the heart of every difficult decision he has made, the welfare of the students has always taken precedence," said Doylestown Hospital CEO Rich Reif. "He has my profound respect as the Superintendent of Schools, as a community leader and a friend."
Of course, not everything has been sunshine and roses, especially in the past few years.
After the economic decline began in 2008, the amount of money coming into the school district began falling. And few things - teachers' salaries, the cost of health insurance, the price of gasoline for the buses or food for the cafeterias - get cheaper over time.
There have been layoffs, as teaching positions and support staff have been eliminated. Jobs have been outsourced, most recently, bus drivers in the transportation department.
But even those who found themselves on the opposite side of the economic debates with the district gave Laws credit for always being willing to listen.
"The relationship that we had with him was a productive one," said Keith Sinn, a chemistry teacher at Central Bucks High School East and outgoing head of the district's teachers union. "We certainly didn’t always agree on everything, but whenever I called, he always made himself available. I found him very accessible, and I certainly always appreciated that."
The public scourging Laws and his assistants took in recent months over changes to the middle school schedule infuriated school board members, including Doylestown's Geri McMullin, who served on the board during all of Laws' tenure. Board members have consistently praised his work, crediting much of the district's success to his leadership.
Other decisions were controversial, too, including switching the high schools to block scheduling in the mid 1990s.
Through it all, observers said, Laws took the public heat when a decision was unpopular. But once he had deliberated on an issue and chosen what he thought to be the best course of action, he never wavered.
"We’re not close friends or anything, but I have sat on the sidelines and watched in awe the hard knocks he’s willing to take to do what’s best for children," said Mumford. "He will make the tough decisions, as administrators have to do. You never reach consensus. And what is best for kids isn’t always the most popular decision."
As Laws heads out the doors, he leaves to his successor a district in pretty good shape. Labor contracts have been settled. The budget, he says, is stable.
The new middle school schedule has been implemented - and if in the future the district's stakeholders decide it was a bad idea, they can always reverse it.
Laws doesn't think that will happen.
"The work we did leading up to it was really well thought out," he said. "I’m real confident that a year from now, they’ll look back and say it was the right thing to do."
The state's pension crisis looms, of course, and enrollment is predicted to drop to about 18,000 by 2018.
Bob Laws, though, will be on to other things by then.
With a son nearby in Perkasie and a home in Plumstead, Laws said he and his wife plan to stick around for awhile. He is negotiating with Delaware Valley College to do some work there, he said.
Still, when Monday comes, it will be the first ordinary Monday in 40 years that Laws will not be heading to school or his office.
"A friend said to me, 'Won't it be nice to get a haircut in the middle of the day?' " Laws said, laughing.
And as a matter of fact, he has a dentist appointment scheduled for next week. During the day.
Are you a student, parent, teacher, or taxpayer in the Central Bucks School District? What do you think of Laws' performance as superintendent? Tell us in the comments.