Controversy Dogs Former Kentucky Superintendent

Published April 20, 2011

The controversy surrounding the superintendent of Kentucky’s largest school district did not end when Sheldon Berman’s contract was not renewed in November. It continues to follow the former Jefferson County school chief to his new $175,000 a year position as head of Eugene, Oregon’s 4J school district.

Evidence uncovered by the Bluegrass Institute, a Kentucky-based think tank, suggests the 4J school board in Oregon may not have known about controversies surrounding Berman’s policies governing Jefferson County’s schools and its nearly 98,000 students.

Oregonians Didn’t Know

Not only was Berman’s tenure marred by a student-assignment plan that had parents of small children forced to ride buses for hours a day up in arms, of even greater concern was the district’s academic performance during his term.

“I spoke with reporters at three different TV stations and a local newspaper, and no one knew that the district was one of the worst-performing in the commonwealth,” said Richard G. Innes, education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute. “This doesn’t mean that the board didn’t know. Maybe they did, but don’t the people in that district deserve to know, too?”

Reporters in Oregon followed up with stories after Innes made them aware of the problems with the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) .They questioned Eugene school board president Craig Smith, who assured reporters that “every issue that we raised was run to ground.”

Smith defended Berman, claiming he had started many good programs that are “beginning to make a change.” He lamented, “it’s really unfortunate that he will not be there to reap the benefits of the seeds he planted over the past three and a half years.”

According to the Kentucky Department of Education, however, Jefferson County met only 52 percent of its No Child Left Behind goals in 2010 and was named one of the 13 lowest-performing districts (out of 174 total districts) in the state. The JCPS board voted in November not to renew Berman’s contract.

‘Save Boards Some Embarrassment’

To assist members of local school boards, Innes has compiled a page of superintendent hiring tips at, a Wikipedia-style government transparency website.

“We’ve had our share of hiring problems here in Kentucky, so perhaps we can save other districts and even state boards of education some embarrassment through what we learned here the hard way,” Innes said. “More importantly, our students and school systems shouldn’t have to endure these situations that can hinder the educational process.”

Incomplete vetting resulted in the Kentucky Board of Education hiring Barbara Erwin as the new education commissioner in 2007. After Erwin’s hiring was announced, the institute and others quickly uncovered multiple errors and exaggerated claims on her résumé, including a “superintendent of the year” award from a previous job in Texas that she did not win and apparently does not exist.

Erwin quit before serving even a single day on the job, and the state board’s chairman was voted out of his chairmanship and later resigned from the board.

Ray & Associates, the firm involved in the Erwin affair, also offered Berman as a finalist to the Eugene 4J school district, which faces a $24 million budget deficit. Dealing with a deficit will be a new experience for Berman, who oversaw a $1 billion budget in Louisville.

Stance on Charters Questioned

Another red flag raised by Innes’ investigation into the Berman hiring was whether the Eugene board and community knew his negative opinion toward charter schools.

4J parents have been emailing Smith about “Berman’s known distaste for charter schools,” Stacia Kalinoski of KEZI-TV reported. Berman is moving from a state with no charter schools to one with more than 100 charter schools.

Innes questioned the hiring decision, saying to Kalinoski, “Why would a charter school opponent be hired in such a district, unless that district wants to attack its parent choice options?”

Search Firms or ‘In House’?
Strapped for cash and under public pressure for greater transparency, local districts are foregoing expensive search firms or, if they use one—which can cost up to $200,000—are making at least parts of the process more public.

Minneapolis and Portland, Maine, which is facing a $2 million budget deficit, have chosen to conduct superintendent searches “in house.”

Houston, by contrast, has hired New York-based Heidrick & Struggles, which conducted “exhaustive interviews of all the players” to “really crystallize what our next superintendent should look like,” according to board president Lawrence Marshall.

“There was no glossing-over round of public forums,” Marshall said.  However, the final parts of the process were conducted behind closed doors.

‘Everyone Will Have Ownership’

Although some candidates insist on secrecy before agreeing to participate in a candidate search, having a more open process could not only reduce the chances of an Erwin-type affair but also could address another problem—districts that “go in and poach someone else’s superintendent under the dark of night,” said Richard Barrera, a newly elected member of the San Diego Unified School District.

Barrera’s district recently lost its superintendent to Houston and is now on its third search for a leader since 2005.

Although involving the public takes longer and won’t satisfy everyone, Barrera says a search should result in hiring “someone who can unite our community because everyone will have ownership over selecting that person.” 

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is vice president of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky