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Robbins settling into superintendent’s role

Looks forward to riding Harley, visiting ocean, mountains

Posted: July 5, 2018 4:04 p.m.
Updated: July 6, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

New Kershaw County School District Dr. Shane Robbins poses by a picture of himself and his wife, Heather, at his district office on Tuesday. Behind him are flags and other memorabilia of his military service, including his work as the administrative chief for the Columbia National Disaster Medical System at Fort Jackson. Robbins said he, his wife and the younger of his two sons are looking forward to enjoying what the community has to offer, and to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle more often.

In March, Shane Robbins had left Fort Jackson’s Moncrief Army Health Clinic and was driving on I-20 to a hotel in Richland County when he received a phone call from a South Carolina number. Thinking it was from the clinic, he answered. It turned out the person calling was a representative of a firm conducting a nationwide search for someone to replace Dr. Frank Morgan as superintendent of the Kershaw County School District (KCSD).

“They said they thought with my skill set, I’d be a good fit,” Robbins recalled during a wide-ranging interview on Tuesday.

For the past year and a half, Robbins has commuted from his home outside Indianapolis, Ind., about once every four months to work as the administrative chief for the Federal Coordinating Center’s Columbia National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) at Fort Jackson. His unit assists in coordinating the transportation of patients from disasters to healthcare providers when hospitals in their home areas are overwhelmed or otherwise unable to take patients.

Robbins does this work as the latest part of his 31 years of military service. Back in Indiana, Robbins was also serving as superintendent of the Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation (MVCSC), which is how Indiana refers to school districts. Back in March, his work at Moncrief coincided with MVCSC’s two-week spring break.

“I’d only been coming to South Carolina for a year and a half and didn’t really know where anything was,” Robbins said. “I asked the consultant where Kershaw County was. They said it was off I-20. I said, ‘I’m on I-20 right now.’”

The consultant gave him directions and urged him to actually drive to the district and consider sending in his application packet.

“So, I drove here.”

Two months later, in May, following two rounds of interviews, he received another phone call: the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees had voted unanimously to name him the district’s new superintendent.

Robbins joined the Army in 1987, but never actively deployed until 2010. At one point, he was sent to Afghanistan as an education officer assisting agribusiness in the country’s Khost Province as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. During his service, he has also been to Korea and northern China where, he said, he got to see the largest jade Buddha in the world. In fact, he was so taken with his visits that he decided to bring Mandarin to MVCSC. He arranged for a Mandarin teacher from Taiwan to move to Indiana, splitting the cost 50/50 with the Taiwanese government.

“My son took it for two years; it’s a big language now,” Robbins said, indicating he might want to have Mandarin added as a language offering in Kershaw County.

Robbins has also served with the Army National Guard as a reservist, which led to the assignment with the unit based out of Fort Jackson.

“It leverages my civilian background,” he said, adding that KershawHealth is actually one of the Columbia NDMS’ partner hospitals. “We also have partnerships with hospitals in the Greenville/Spartanburg area. If a national disaster strikes and patients need to be relocated, they can activate the team to work on facilitating that communication and those partnerships.”

His unit was activated for the very first time just last year due to 2017’s severe hurricane season. They assisted in coordinating, for example, having a number of patients from Puerto Rico moved to Columbia following hurricanes striking the island.

“That was, actually, my introduction to South Carolina,” Robbins said.

Now, he’ll be just 15 minutes from Fort Jackson instead of 10 hours away in Indiana.

“I actually took the position (with the Columbia NDMS) because it’s not deployable; I can even do my work from here,” he said, gesturing toward his desk at the district office.

Indiana born and bred, Robbins graduated from Franklin College, south of Indianapolis, and began teaching science and health at Blackford High School in Hartford City, Ind. He eventually became an assistant principal, associate principal and principal. Robbins then became superintendent at Monroe Central School Corporation in Parker City, Ind., and then at Northwestern Consolidated School Corporation of Shelby County, Ind.

Robbins became superintendent of MVCSC in 2015. According to a May 18 article in the Greenfield, Ind., Daily Reporter written after his acceptance of the Kershaw County posting, he returned the district’s grade to an “A” as determined by the Indiana Department of Education; implemented a 1:1 ratio of students and technology in classrooms within a month of being hired; and oversaw a $10 million renovation at Mt. Vernon Middle School. In addition, all five MVCSC schools became STEM certified.

If “all five” schools sounds small, that’s because it is.

According to MVCSC’s website, the district’s total enrollment for 2016-2017 was just shy of 4,000. Robbins said that size is typical of Indiana school systems. MVCSC is one of four districts in Hancock County -- a county that, according to the 2010 Census was just a little larger than Kershaw County at 70,000. The county was named for John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, whose large signature on the Declaration of Independence is so well known. The other three districts are Community School Corporation of Southern Hancock County, Eastern Hancock School Corporation, and Greenfield-Central Community School Corporation. Robbins said Greenfield-Central has a bit larger enrollment because it includes Greenfield, the largest municipality in the county.

Unlike Kershaw County, MVCSC has taxing authority; it can raise its own taxes without having to go through either the county’s council (which sets legislative policies) or board of commissioners (which executes the council’s policies).

“Mt. Vernon’s been growing at about 5 to 7 percent every year,” Robbins said. “When we’ve raised taxes, we’ve been able to sunset them early to reduce the tax rate, which demonstrates our fiscal conservatism.”

He said MVCSC was able to do this by carefully balancing budget constraints while still paying employees, and by leveraging technology.

Fiscal conservatism even extended to the issue of school resource officers (SROs).

“We share the SRO expenses. Each city’s council gives us at least one -- they’re ‘owned’ by the cities, but we share the salary expense 50/50, except for one which a council is paying for 100 percent. I’ve told the police departments, ‘My job is to educate, yours is to protect and serve.’ During the summers, they work for their departments,” Robbins said.

As for the KCSD’s construction projects, Robbins said every district for which he’s worked has had some type of construction project going on, including field houses for sports.

“I’ve got great people here,” Robbins said, referring to KCSD Director of Operations Billy Smith and Chief Financial Officer Donnie Wilson, along with their staffs and the companies that have contracted with the district, “but I want to be there, too. At the end of the day, if a decision needs to be made, it’s good to be a part of the team.”

For example, he is gearing up to plan for the transfer of Camden, Lugoff and Wateree elementary school students into their new facilities, which is scheduled to take place in time for the second semester of 2019, in January.

Coming from a small, rural district like MVCSC, Robbins said he is also sensitive to the needs and desires of parents whose children attend the county’s smaller schools.

“I believe in small schools, and I have to be cognizant of ‘windshield time,’” he said, referring to how much time a student spends on a bus or in their parent’s vehicle to get to and from school. “I’m early in this process. I understand the emotional piece of that, but I don’t have any preconceptions.”

Robbins said that, in his experience, most architects who work on school construction and renovation have told him it’s not wise to invest in old buildings, but to construct new ones, primarily in order to be up to code.

“For me, I have to pay special attention to all of that. There are three parts of the county -- North Central, Camden and Lugoff-Elgin -- and the relationship is fragile, so it’s my job to make sure I represent the entire district. I want to make sure that students graduate from the district as prepared as possible for life after school,” Robbins said, calling the issue of what to do with North Central’s elementary schools something to “walk, not run to.”

He also mentioned that as MVCSC’s superintendent, he saw 900 housing units permitted for construction in just the last 18 months. He said he recognizes that parts of Kershaw County are growing, too, and quickly.

“And if we grow students, then I have to grow employees,” Robbins said, strongly indicating his desire to keep students out of mobile classrooms -- MVCSC managed to undergo the $10 million renovation of its middle school without resorting to mobiles, shuffling students around instead.

For now, Robbins said he is excited and ready to get into “some kind of routine” as the district’s new superintendent. He said he was immediately taken during his first visit with the combination of suburban and rural atmosphere Kershaw County provides.

“It felt really good,” he said, adding that he actually made the decision to submit his application after calling his wife, Heather. “We came back here one additional time. She visited the (Lugoff-Elgin) high school and just loved the people, especially (School Board and Superintendent Administrative Assistant) Carolina Connare and (Director for Communications) Mary Anne Byrd, who took her around.”

Robbins sold his house in Indiana on Sunday and has already chosen a home near Elgin, one that he chose for a special reason.

“My parents are retired and are moving with me. They also live in a very rural part of Indiana that is, unfortunately, in decline. I urged them to move in with me, and then I got this job,” Robbins said.

He said his parents’ original plan was to retire to Florida, but he convinced them to join him and the family in South Carolina.

“They like to travel, so we looked for a home that would fit that need, even with one son in college and another one who will be in two years,” Robbins said.

His wife is an operations supervisor for QuadMed, an on- or near-site health and wellness center company. It organizes on-site healthcare clinics, for companies and other organizations. Robbins said she can work remotely from home, visiting sites as she needs to, usually on a quarterly basis.

Their older son, Bryce, is an elementary education major at Franklin College, Robbins’ alma mater. Their younger son, Brandon, will become a junior at Lugoff-Elgin High School.

One of the biggest things Robbins said he is looking forward to is being able to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle more often.

“I love Indiana, but it’s flat. South Carolina is beautiful! We want to visit the ocean and the mountains -- my wife and I love to do things outside,” he said. “I want to stretch myself and show my sons that change is OK.”

Robbins said he knew things were going to work out if he got the job when he and his wife attended a meet and greet the night of his second interview with the school board.

“My wife is a bit of an introvert, and I saw that she was comfortable engaging with people,” Robbins said. “The people here are amazingly friendly and welcoming -- that always feels good. I know some people fear change, but I like to take the approach that you attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.”

As for goal setting as superintendent, Robbins said he doesn’t yet have anything specific in mind. Instead, he is concentrating on gathering data and metrics to put into a format he can share with the board.

On that front he said Dr. Morgan has been “a big help” during the transition.

“He hasn’t tried to push anything, but is just being helpful,” he said.

Among the goals he said he would like to work on is finding ways to inspire students who leave for college to come back to Kershaw County to live, work and raise families of their own.

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