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December 1, 2010

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After dumping Berman, school board members are vague about what they seek in a new superintendent

By the time the Jefferson County Board of Education voted against renewing Superintendent Sheldon Berman’s contract, the embattled educator had already left the building.

At the conclusion of a three-hour, closed-door meeting to evaluate his job performance, it was clear Berman had lost the necessary support. Without any public input, the school board voted 5-2 last Monday to let the superintendent’s four-year contract expire at the end of June 2011.

In a statement released to the media, Berman said he was “greatly disappointed” by the decision, but believes the district has made significant progress in quality curriculum, school culture and instructional innovations during his tenure.

“We have moved the district in directions that are good for kids,” he said. “My only regret is that I will not be part of (JCPS) in future years to carry these important initiatives to completion and to see the benefits they produce.”

But school board members who voted against Berman contend he was unwilling to change directions even slightly in the face of abysmal test scores, failing schools and growing complaints over the controversial student assignment plan.

In November, the Kentucky Department of Education issued a blistering report that included six Jefferson County high schools on the state’s list of 10 lowest-performing public schools. It marked the second consecutive year that six area schools were among the worst in the state, meaning JCPS will once again be subject to an audit that could result in major restructuring.

“The overarching issue that kept coming up during that meeting was to focus harder on student achievement,” says board chairwoman Debbie Wesslund, who voted in favor of ousting Berman. “It’s not that we haven’t centered on that, but we want to do it with more urgency. We’ve got accountability measures that our schools need to meet, and we want to redouble our focus.”

Amid mounting pressure to meet higher academic standards while upholding a controversial busing plan to maintain diversity, the school board made an unexpected decision when it voted against renewing the superintendent’s contract. Despite making such a drastic personnel change, those in favor of Berman’s ouster have failed to specify exactly what reforms they would like to see occur, and as a result, some critics believe Berman is just the latest scapegoat for a district in academic decline.

In the immediate aftermath, those who support Berman accuse the majority of acting hastily and failing to present concrete information to justify Berman’s firing. They also maintain that Berman, who was hired in 2007, wasn’t given enough time to turn around a sizeable district with significant problems.

“I was surprised,” says school board member Stephen Imhoff, who represents District 2 and voted to retain Berman. “About halfway through the discussion, though, it was obvious he didn’t have the votes. Three and a half years is not enough time for anybody to show any type of change or improvement.”

During the evaluation, however, school board member Larry Hujo — who had previously supported Berman — said the decision to seek new leadership came down to the superintendent’s lack of urgency to address worsening test scores in reading and math. As a result, he voted to give Berman the boot.

“We’re facing a critical situation for the students in Jefferson County with schools not meeting the required academic standards,” says Hujo, who represents District 7. “In Lexington-Fayette County, for example, they had one failing school, and their superintendent declared war. And Dr. Berman had this (attitude) of, ‘Well, we have some programs in place, and in a couple of years they’re going to produce results.’ We don’t have a couple of years, we need to fix this, and we need to fix it now.

“I take some of the responsibility as a member of the board, because we picked Dr. Berman in 2007, and maybe we should have looked elsewhere,” Hujo adds. “But we’re just not going in the direction we need to go.”

The challenges facing JCPS go beyond the classroom and include a high number of at-risk students. This school year, 61 percent of students are receiving free or reduced lunches. And last school year, the number of homeless students jumped 23 percent to 10,555, an increase of nearly 2,000 students over the previous year.

“We don’t have enough resources,” says school board member Linda Duncan, who voted to retain Berman, adding that the ouster had more to do with his personality than academic standards. “Instead of addressing that, our state legislature latched onto ‘No Child Left Behind’ in order to say we’re going to have high standards in this state. But those standards are totally unrealistic (and) unacceptable.”

The school board is set to begin its search for a replacement in January, with all board members agreeing that experience in a similar-sized urban school district is necessary. Beyond that, however, board members don’t agree on how or where they’ll find Berman’s successor, much less what sort of superintendent they’re looking for.

Asked if the district needs a hard-nosed reformer such as Michelle Rhee — the former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system who ordered schools closed and purged teachers — the board chairwoman was hesitant to support such a candidate.

“We have to have an urgent agenda around public education in Jefferson County. And we’re going to have a conversation about potential candidates, but we don’t want someone to get in and blow everything up,” Wesslund says. “There’s a lot we do well. I’m looking for someone who can shore up public support in the school system and speak to all parts of the community, from the East End to the West End. We need to ratchet up our progress and look hard at our investments to see what’s making a difference and what’s not.”