Monday, September 06, 2010

A Question of Style

In the August 19 edition of the Alexandria Gazette, the Growler was struck by the lead of yet another story on Jefferson-Houston's performance problems: "The way [ACPS] Superintendent Morton Sherman looks at it, there's not much more he can throw at Jefferson-Houston School."

But in fact the school briefly achieved AYP two years ago under a previous superintendent. And there are other options for Jefferson-Houston that have not yet been deployed: redistricting, a change in principal if necessary (nothing should be off the table in the long-term), reorganization as a charter school, a complete closure with the remaining student body transferred to other schools or the future school planned for Potomac Yard.

The notion that there is nothing left in the superintendent's bag of tricks is all the more curious because two major initiatives are actually underway at Jefferson-Houston: the switch from an arts focus to the IB-PYP program (which ACPS was considering well before Dr. Sherman's arrival) and the plan to transform Jefferson-Houston into a K-8 school.

So why is Dr. Sherman throwing up his hands in public so quickly? Is his statement in the Gazette a tacit admission that these measures will not address the school's performance issues, a preemptive strike if you will, to lower public expectations? Or is it just a cry of irritation?

Any way you look at it, the Growler is surprised Dr. Sherman made such an unguarded remark to a reporter. Certainly he must have known there were many problems in the Alexandria system when he accepted the post and that progress might not be achieved overnight.

However, in light of this article and the controversy over the proposed Jefferson-Houston redevelopment project, perhaps it's time to look closer at Dr. Sherman's record. What lessons has he learned elsewhere and what has been his style? And what experiences may have shaped his expectations here?

In a previous posting, the Growler presented data about the New Jersey school districts where Dr. Sherman had served in the past, and discovered these districts were historically more successful and less diverse, with greater community participation than those in Alexandria, particularly at the middle and high school levels.

But consider this as well:

1. At his last two postings in New Jersey, Dr. Sherman reaped the benefit of having capital spending measures approved by voters to finance ambitious school renovation and construction projects. In Tenafly, NJ — where he served immediately before coming to Alexandria — voters approved a $33.4 million plan to renovate the local middle and high school in November 2005, shortly before Dr. Sherman's arrival there. And at his previous posting in Cherry Hill township NJ, in March 1999 voters approved a $52.6 million bond issue for school repairs and improvements — the first in 30 years — while Dr. Sherman was superintendent there. Dr. Sherman pushed hard for the bond and endorsed a $50 million total, boosting it over the $46 million bond requested by two school board committees.

However, the Philadelphia Inquirer later described how citizens who had fought for the successful bond measure, hoping to put an end to piecemeal school maintenance efforts, felt betrayed when the day after the vote the school board proceeded to make cuts in the annual maintenance budget.

The Inquirer detailed accusations that Dr. Sherman had hidden budget numbers from the community until the day after the bond was approved, and that the administration deliberately fudged details about which renovations the bond would pay for and which were included in the capital outlay budget. The newspaper quoted a leading bond supporter stating: "There is a perception in the community that the school board and the administration have have not been honest."

In May 1999, the Inquirer revealed that the Cherry Hill school board had ignored recommendations from the Township Council to trim $300,000 in administrative costs and $100,000 in pupil-management software expenses for the next school year and instead made deeper maintenance cuts. Dr. Sherman "advised the board to cut the full amount from maintenance, saying money for facilities could be increased in later budgets. 'I would rather have a piece of ceiling tile fall from the classroom than cut one child's program,' he said." According to the Cherry Hill Courier-Post, the majority of the proposed maintenance cuts were subsequently restored after voters rejected the budget.

2. A February 2002 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that while Dr. Sherman had his supporters in the Cherry Hill school district since his arrival in 1997, "His critics say he is a smooth-talking, egotistical leader looking to build a national reputation for himself by pushing through the latest programs at a breakneck pace with little support for teachers or interest in dissenting opinions."

3. The same Inquirer article also uncovered the fact that "the district has experienced a huge employee turnover under his watch, with 40 percent of the district's current teachers and 75 percent of its principals hired during his administration." Since Dr. Sherman was quoted saying "I inherited a district that was sitting on its laurels" when he arrived, it isn't clear that the turnover was entirely due to a clearing of incompetents.

4. A June 2005 article in the Inquirer discussed Dr. Sherman's resignation from Cherry Hill, which was to be effective the following June. The Inquirer described him as "controversial" and "hard-charging," observing that while he had supporters who were attracted by his focus on innovation and standards, "he also acquired detractors who said he had an egotistical style, alienated teachers, and pushed through unpopular programs without the support of the community."

Reporter Kristen Graham wrote that the notice he was leaving was submitted a few hours before a critical school board meeting that "would likely have decided not to renew his contract" but that "the manner of his resignation was typical of Sherman: delivered at the eleventh hour, which allowed him, and not the school board, to control the message."

The Cherry Hill Courier Post likewise reported that Carrie Roldan-Rosenthal, a parent of two children who attend district schools, said she thought Dr. Sherman was divisive. "'I don't think you have been positive for the school district. I came from the district you came from (in Rockland County, N.Y.) and I know that you were very divisive there,' she said."

5. In August 2005, Dr. Sherman announced he was leaving six months earlier than planned, in the middle of the school year, to take up a new position with the Tenafly, NJ school system. The Inquirer wrote:

Sherman, who has led Cherry Hill schools for eight years, is known for his focus on innovation and standards. But detractors say he leads without building consensus and has pushed through unpopular programs. The Cherry Hill board does not support all of Sherman's initiatives and his contract might not have been renewed had he not submitted his resignation.
6. Dr. Sherman was quoted in June 2005 saying "I imagine, at this point in my career, there's probably one more superintendency left in me." A few months later when he secured the position at the Tenafly, NJ school system he stated "It's a rapidly evolving community, which I find exciting. I'll be taking over this wonderful little district that pretty much sets the standards for New Jersey. This Board of Education has been very impressive to me, and I look at this as a great match as where I am personally and professionally."

But Dr. Sherman left Tenafly less than three years later, interviewing for a post in Easton, Pennsylvania (where he was a finalist) before settling on Alexandria.

Now that Dr. Sherman been on board in Alexandria for two years, do we see any signs of the same traits the press highlighted in his prior assignments: egotism, failure to build consensus, a desire for a national profile, a lack of sensitivity, or a fuzziness with numbers?

There's the run-in last year with local civil rights leaders over school signage that tactlessly rubbed black and Hispanic children raw about their lagging test scores. (And readers should know that when JH made AYP two years ago, just as Dr. Sherman arrived, the usual celebratory banner, which would have been hung on the school's exterior to celebrate this brief blip of hope in our neighborhood, was banned on his orders.)

Now complaints have been filed by ACPS minority teachers claiming discrimination. Word is out that a number of senior ACPS staffers have departed or clearing out their desks. And recent analysis by the Commonwealth's Auditor of Public Accounts reveals that Alexandria continues to have the highest per capital spending per pupil in Northern Virginia, spending less per capita on instruction and spending more for administration than every other regional division except for Falls Church.

Probably little of this would make a difference if we could see the beginning of an upward trajectory in performance. But recent NCLB results were mixed, with little significant improvement overall for minority children who make up the bulk of enrollment in Alexandria, particularly from middle school onward.

Instead of keeping his focus on results, much of the Superintendent's energy seems to be expended nowadays on the controversial Jefferson-Houston redevelopment proposal, which is primarily a real estate deal. Many residents question whether it is really going to have any impact on test scores.

And that brings us to the ever-morphing price tag for rebuilding Jefferson-Houston School. The 2007 ACPS white paper (published while Rebecca Perry still served as Superintendent) estimated it would cost $6 million for a new elementary school. The FY 2011 ACPS budget submission under Dr. Sherman early in 2010 stated the cost of the public-private partnership to the City would be $21.5 million. But now we have Dr. Sherman telling Michael Lee Pope in the September 6, 2010 Alexandria Gazette that the cost will be $30 million.

Can anyone explain how a superintendent can diverge nearly 30% from his own budget submission in less than one year? Is looseness with numbers a habit or just a failure to do his homework?

It's also telling to hear Dr. Sherman's remarks at a January 12, 2010 school board work session on Jefferson-Houston redevelopment:

These are tough times in public education, and in those tough times the tough need to get going, and need to do things differently. And I think the challenge before a public board of education, a public school superintendent is to figure out how to do things differently. The needs don’t go away. We have increasing enrollment. We have, Mrs. Gorsuch [School Board member Cheryl Gorsuch], some very unique needs and that goes back to conversations I’ve had with some of you in terms of our student body, our achievement needs, and I think if we can demonstrate to this City and maybe to the country that there is a different way of doing business in American public education, I would hope you would support that. I think this proposal, from the work we’ve done over the past year is responsible, it is responsive, and it is different enough to chart a course to hold down costs for the American taxpayers. And so I believe, because of its responsiveness, its responsibility, its responsibleness, and its differentness, for all those reasons I would hope that at some point the City would join us. I do believe it’s is the right thing to do, and maybe if at some point the City says hold on, WE don’t want to do that, at least give the green light to the School Board to go ahead even without the City. (School Board Work Session, January 12, 2010, video at 1:19:47)
Not surprisingly, School Board Chairman Yvonne Folkert's response to this monologue was a simple “Gulp!”

Knowing that Washington, D.C.'s Oyster School has become a model for public-private partnerships, do Dr. Sherman's remarks about American taxpayers and the country indicate a drive to be a player on the national stage, which was noted as far back as his tenure at Cherry Hill?

So the Growler leaves you with a lot of questions, including this one: will Dr. Sherman drag the Alexandria school system into excellence or bitterly divide the community and then take his departure?