Idaho’s “Friend of Education”
Local business owner creates needed classroom space for students
Rob Roberts’ dedication to Idaho students began with “just a wild hair” to move from Pennsylvania to Idaho, where he founded R&M Steel in 1969.
Prior to his cross-country move, Roberts took a class in welding because he wanted to learn how to build a trailer hitch. The rest, as they say, is history. The welding class led to more: he applied his welding skills to erecting structural steel, manufacturing various steel components for buildings, and finally to the design and fabrication of complete metal buildings. Today, R&M Steel offers worldwide sales and distribution of “custom designed pre-engineered metal building systems for virtually any application.”
“If we can manufacture buildings, we can manufacture school buildings,” Roberts said.
Roberts, and his wife Nancy, have been dubbed “Friends of Education” for their contribution to designing, manufacturing, and donating steel structures for schools in various communities throughout the Gem State and Eastern Oregon. To date, they have designed and donated a total of 33 structures.
Financing a school facility is no simple task for school leaders in Idaho; especially for charter schools and rural districts. Charter schools, unlike district schools, cannot access local property taxes through voter-supported levies to support construction costs. The challenge for rural districts is similar, where smaller tax bases can’t support large facility investments. Idaho’s status as the second-fastest growing state means an increase in land and construction costs. Combined with a steadily-growing student population, Roberts understands how giving the gift of complete metal buildings provides opportunities for schools to have facilities they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.
“So many schools, particularly Career Ed, or Professional Technical, and particularly in the Ag world and Ag Science…so many of those schools need a new school building. But it’s too much money, that they just can’t do that,” Roberts said. “So we said, okay, we will design it, manufacture it, and donate it to you. That really has helped motivate so many people to make that happen.”
Roberts has been involved in various projects across Idaho in different areas including: Vision Charter School in Caldwell, Burley High School in Burley, Oakley High School in Oakley, Raft River High School in Malta, Elevate Academy in Caldwell, and many others.
“Your only limiting factor is your imagination in terms of how you want it [the school building] to look, and how you want it to come out,” Roberts said.
Founders of Elevate Academy and Idaho New School Fellows, Matt Strong and Monica White, worked with Roberts on building the 14,520 square feet steel facility, which houses the welding, precision machine shop, construction trades, culinary arts classroom, fitness center, and a laundry facility for student use.
“When we were doing this project [creating the school], one of our core tenets is to have everything community-driven. We value people in the community to build this building, because that’s where our students will have the opportunity to work someday,” Strong said.
Strong and White knew of Roberts’ work on other school buildings, but they also knew Roberts had an idea of what an excellent welding and manufacturing shop looks like — based on his own experience in building and outfitting his own business.
“Rob gets that piece of it. To do these shops, it’s a lot of money,” Strong said.
R&M’s donation to Elevate Academy freed up funds to invest in the specialty tools found in these real-world shops — virtual-reality welders, C&C machines, ventilation hoods, table saws, band saws, and more — that give kids at Elevate hands-on career experience in their desired trades.
While reflecting on how he and Nancy are making a positive impact on Idaho schools, Roberts said they just enjoy seeing the work created by the students in these career-technical education programs. Roberts said this makes their commitment to schools that much more rewarding.
“At Elevate, they can find a field that they are super interested in as a student. You get that student really interested, and motivated, then they go out and get a job,” Roberts said. “There are opportunities for them to work and become a prosperous member of the community. You’ve got to give the student a great sense of well-being too.”
Strong said students regularly tour R&M Steel, and they know who Roberts is, deepening their career-technical business connections in the Caldwell community.
But, Roberts has not just contributed to CTE schools in Idaho cities. He has also created large-scale buildings from the ground up in rural areas of Idaho as well — including Salmon.
The Lynch Center, which houses Salmon High School’s athletic programs, was a project the entire community got behind and completed together. Jim Bob Infanger, President of Ray’s Heating and Plumbing and Salmon resident, said this $500,000 project was “inspired by Rob taking the first step forward to donate.”
“The excavation of over 30,000 yards of clay soils and material was hauled away and 30,000 of rock hauled back in, and over 40 dump trucks,” Infanger said. “All the equipment to move the materials were all donated by the local contractors for the project.”
Infanger and the Salmon community are still impressed with how the building came together.
“It really did turn out to be something beautiful. We have three basketball courts, a full wrestling room, a great big, huge entry, it’s beautiful,” Infanger said. “Words can’t describe it. It’s almost as big as our high school. But it wouldn’t have happened without Rob and many others.”
Completed in summer 2021, the opportunity this new space provides for students is immense. Athletics are a big part of the high school experience for many students, but in rural Salmon, the nearest basketball game is 122 miles away. The professionals and contractors from the community understood the importance of chipping in to construct this new facility.
“The community, they did the work; they did the electrical contracting, they all worked on the sheet rock, and so on,” Roberts said. “With people pitching in and helping do this stuff, it gives people a sense of ownership.”
Infanger said he heard of Roberts’ work helping other school districts. Because of this, he drove the 260 miles from Salmon down to Caldwell to meet with him.
“He was an absolute savior, gracious, to build us a 30,000 square foot building and deliver it to us,” Infanger said. “And didn’t charge us a dime. We literally broke down and started crying. Rob really led the way, but we had many people stand up and [help it] move forward.”
It isn’t just Infanger and the community who noticed the “outstanding” quality of the building. In fact, Infanger said, Pat Donnelly from Donnelly Sports, which sells uniforms to school districts throughout Idaho, toured the building and told the athletic director, ‘This facility that Rob Roberts help you build is the best facility I’ve ever seen in the state of Idaho.”
Roberts has seen, first-hand, the life-changing impact he and R&M Steel have made by donating to communities who need it most.
“It improves the students’ [experience]; it improves the teachers’ [experience]. The teachers, they don’t want to go home at night, because they are so comfortable there,” Roberts said. “And the students get so much out of it.”
Roberts is currently working on building projects with Elevate Nampa, Elevate North in Post Falls, Heritage Community Charter School in Caldwell, and an Ag Science building for Nez Perce High School.
Strong said he went back to R&M Steel when the projects for Elevate North and Nampa began. But the Elevate team didn’t return to Roberts because of his donation, they returned to discuss the projects with Roberts because of his high-quality work. During the project discussion, they didn’t ask Roberts to donate these two new buildings — he just did.
“He doesn’t care if you’re private, public, charter — that’s the beauty about Rob,” Strong said. “This guy has done and donated so much to education and that’s where the language of he’s a true ‘Friend of Education’ comes from. It’s not just Elevate Academy, it’s really all over the state. He’s really been a giving man to education.”
In a recent market analysis report, Public Impact predicts the Gem State will need over 100 new schools by 2030 to meet the needs of students — making it difficult for schools to quickly adapt. The ability to move quicker at creating a high-quality facility for students wouldn’t be possible without community-committed philanthropists and business leaders like Roberts at R&M Steel. Strong said “people out there need to know” about Robert’s dedication to Idaho students. “He wants kids to have opportunities.” Roberts does this by giving schools the flexibility to spend their money in the classroom rather than on it.
Elevate Academy, Elevate Academy Nampa and Elevate Academy North are Bluum partner schools. These schools have received grant support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation and from Idaho’s Communities of Excellence federal Charter Schools Program grant.