‘The only person we interviewed:’ Lisa Roberts takes the helm for Boise schools

Boise trustees could have taken on a national, months-long search for a new superintendent, potentially screening dozens of candidates. 

Instead, they turned to just one: Lisa Roberts.

“She was the only person we interviewed,” board president Dave Wagers said. “If we needed to make changes then we would have. But she is the only person I can envision running the Boise School District right now.”

Roberts will take over as superintendent on July 1. She will be the first woman to lead the district in its almost 160-year history. She’ll make $210,978 compared to her predecessor, Coby Dennis, who earned $204,337 per year. She’ll become Idaho’s second-highest paid superintendent behind West Ada’s Derek Bub, who makes $214,965. The average superintendent salary in Idaho is $115,593.

Board vice president Maria Greeley wholeheartedly supported the hire.

“It was so easy as a board member to look at this process and say, ‘This is so clearly the person to lead the district,’” Greeley said.

Roberts brings more than three decades of experience in the Boise School District to her new role. Most recently, she served as deputy superintendent, following the same path as Dennis.

Lisa Roberts

Wagers said the idea of the district grooming its leaders and hiring from within is by design.

“She got the chance to learn under Coby Dennis, and Coby was really, really great about giving her opportunities and pushing her to become the great leader she is today,” Wagers said.

And, he added, continuity at the leadership level can inspire confidence in the district’s teachers and staff members.

“We have almost 4,000 employees, and if they know there’s leadership at the top they can trust, and a vision they can trust, then they feel like they have some security in their jobs and where the school district is going,” Wagers said.

Coby Dennis, retiring Boise schools superintendent

Still a teacher at heart

Roberts began her education career by spending five years as an elementary teacher. Those who know her and have worked with her say that — in many ways — she still carries herself as a teacher: caring and compassionate, but not afraid to lead with a firm hand, if needed.

“Teaching is an amazing gig,” Roberts said. “I could have done that forever.”

She went on to become an assistant principal and a principal, and said getting to know students and families was an important part of the job.

Years later, some of those connections remain.

“I still run into families who will come up to me and tell me how their kids are doing,” Roberts said. “There’s one mom, every time things are a little rough in the district, she will drop off some tomatoes from her garden for me. Other families will send me emails and keep in touch.”

Roberts said relationships are still key in her administrator’s role, and it’s important to her to feel like she’s making a difference in other people’s lives – and their jobs.

“My goal is to at least do anything I can so that principals and teachers can do what they need to do,” Roberts said.

That goal wasn’t so easy during the COVID years.

At the time, Dr. Kenny Bramwell was St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital’s senior medical director, and among a group of doctors that routinely provided input to various Idaho school districts. He said it didn’t take long for Roberts to make an impression.

“We started working together in the summer of 2020 and we worked together for the next 24 months, very consistently,” Bramwell said. “I found Lisa to be an exceptional leader. I thought she was insightful. She was genuinely inquisitive and receptive.”

Bramwell said he appreciated that Roberts – and Dennis – listened to the advice the doctors gave them. That wasn’t always the case with other districts.

“I would say Lisa and Coby – because they were working together – did a masterful job of navigating these completely uncharted waters,” Bramwell said.

A working relationship that worked

That relationship between Roberts and Dennis extended beyond dealing with the pandemic.

“When (Dennis) became superintendent he said, ‘I don’t necessarily need a deputy, I really need a partner in this job,’” Roberts said.

That partnership blossomed during Dennis’ term.

“I could go in and talk to him and say that I didn’t necessarily agree with a decision. Let’s talk about that,” Roberts said. “Sometimes I would come around, and other times he’d come over to my side. That’s where I feel fortunate. My time with Coby has put me in a lot of positions to the point where I feel ready.”

Debbie Donovan, a recently appointed Boise trustee, has a long history of working in the district, which has allowed her to watch Roberts blossom as a leader under Dennis. Donovan said she has been especially impressed with the effort Roberts has put forward in fostering community relationships, like with St. Luke’s.

“Working on community partnerships takes a huge amount of time, but she realizes the benefits of that,” Donovan said. “It takes more than a school district to make significant impacts on students and families.”

“She’s just the whole package, and I’m excited to see a woman in the position.”

Challenges ahead

Roberts could retire in two years but told the board she intends to stay for at least four years.

“Beyond that, we’ll see if I’m still loving it — and whether they’re sick of me,” Roberts said.

Roberts believes the Boise district is well-positioned for the years ahead, but she also knows there will be challenges.

“Declining enrollment remains an issue, and the housing market is so difficult. We hear that from families all the time,” Roberts said.

Boise’s enrollment has been on a steady decline for at least 10 years and the district of 22,000 students lost 523 this past year, the largest drop in Idaho. 

She said some of the factors surrounding declining enrollment are out of the district’s hands, but she knows one thing the district can do: Be the area’s most attractive option.

“No. 1, we need to make sure that people in Boise know that we’re the best choice,” Roberts said. “And we do that by continuing to have National Merit Scholars and promoting our programs.”

Another issue that Roberts said will be a focus is the student and teacher well-being.

“We’ve really ramped up our mental-health support the past few years, especially this year,” Roberts said. “That’s just another area that’s important to me to be involved in and make sure we stay on that.”

Especially distressing to Roberts is a recent uptick in student suicides.

“I’m not sure we can pinpoint that to any one thing,” she said. “But I do know that we need to keep an eye on students’ mental health, for sure, and make sure there’s a sense of belonging in their schools. It needs to be a home for them the way school was a home for me.”

Smooth sailing

As for her own well-being, Roberts leans on her husband, Jeff, the principal at Dennis Technical Education Center. Jeff followed Roberts into education, and now they routinely discuss their respective careers, and their day-to-day happenings.

They have two children — now adults — who both attended schools in the Boise School District.

Roberts likes to point out that the entire family is “100% Boise schools.”

Roberts enjoys gardening in her free time, and now that she and her husband are empty nesters they have taken on new roles in “parenting.”

“What you do when you become an empty nester is you get a new puppy,” she said. “So, now we have a beagle and a foxhound.”

They’ve even adopted a stray cat that gets along famously with the two family dogs.

The Roberts also acquired a sailboat that they enjoy cruising across the waters of Payette Lake in McCall.

Which begs the question: After navigating the Boise district through choppy and calm waters on a weekly basis, does Roberts enjoy taking the helm of the family sailboat?

“Oh, no, no, no,” she said emphatically. “That would definitely be my husband.”

Chris Langrill

Chris Langrill

Chris is a former Idaho Statesman reporter and editor who is freelancing for EdNews this summer.

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