Retiring educator put kids first

SNOHOMISH — Thirty-seven years later, Betty Robertson still can rattle off the names of many of her students from the first class she taught out of college.

Those special education kids from Captain Gray Elementary School in Pasco were an active bunch.

Once, when she had called in sick with the flu, her entire class left the substitute teacher during recess and wandered across the street to her home — a rental house that had been converted from a garage.

“We didn’t like her,” they told Robertson, who showed up at her door in her robe.

As trying as they could be, they did like Robertson and they wanted her back.

Over the years, a lot of people — students, parents and co-workers — liked Robertson, who became a principal, a school district director of elementary education and an assistant school district superintendent. She spent 33 years in Marysville and Snohomish schools.

On Monday, Robertson was in Spokane receiving a regional merit award for life-time achievement from the Washington Association of School Administrators. Her retirement begins Wednesday.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better boss than Betty,” said Paula Nelson, principal at Seattle Hill Elementary School in the Snohomish district. “She’s approachable. She’s personable. She makes time for you.”

As an administrator, Robertson has been through plenty of challenges: the architect responsible for bringing together opposing sides to craft a sex-ed policy in Marysville, the second in command during a lengthy teachers strike in Snohomish and the principal at a school with a large number of children from low-income families and a revolving door enrollment.

In 1998, during her first year in Snohomish, she inherited a $1.5 million budget mess caused by overspending and an overestimation of student enrollment. A year ago, she pinch-hit from October to July as superintendent while Bill Mester battled cancer. During that time, voters passed a $261 million bond measure, the largest school bond in Snohomish County history.

“We are going to miss her a lot,” said Jay Hagen, who has served on the Snohomish School Board for 12 years. “She is a caring and compassionate person. It was always children first with her.”

One thing Robertson said she learned about education as a special education teacher in the early 1970s holds true today: “You can accomplish a lot, but you always feel there is more to do.”

Over the years, she always had a good sounding board at home. Her husband, Wayne, began his career as a special education teacher in the Tri-Cities. He later became superintendent of the Lakewood and Edmonds school districts.

At retirement parties in recent weeks, Robertson said she didn’t want any gifts, but would appreciate donations to the local food bank and books for preschool students. More than 400 pounds of food and $500 for the local food bank were collected along with 160 books for local schools. District administrators later kicked in $650 in Barnes &Noble gift certificates to buy more books.

In recent years, Robertson has had job offers that she turned down. She grew to admire the residents in the Snohomish district who stepped up to help during the financial meltdown of 1998 and later agreed to build a second high school despite the deep-rooted traditions of a one high school town.

“This is a school district very strongly connected to its neighborhood schools,” she said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446,

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