Friday, November 06, 2009

More Travels with Shelly

Back in May, Page One Kentucky was raising questions about the amount (and nature) of travel Jefferson County Superintendent Shelly Berman was engaed in - what with all the failing schools and other pressing business in Louisville and all.

At Page One, Jake Payne counted "a total of 18 missed work days for non-JCPS-related meetings... throughout the school year."

But Berman told KSN&C, that over a two-year period (Dec 2007-Jan 2009), at most it should have "calculated to about 9 days out of the district rather than 18."

I asked for comment from a few Jefferson County Board of Education members and no one wanted to comment. But finding no tangible evidence of concern, I blew it all off saying, "Perhaps more information will come to light that will cause me to change my assessment, but at this point it sure doesn't look like it."

This week, in the wake of revelations at the Bluegrass Airport, The Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties, Adam Walser at WHAS TV thought it might be a good idea to check up on Louisville school district executives. Are they living high-on-the-hog off tax dollars as well? Surely not.

This from Walser at WHAS by way of KSBA:

Are Dr. Sheldon Berman’s travels

raising funds, and prominence or are they excessive?

Using an Open Records request, WHAS11 discovered that Dr. Sheldon Berman took 40 days of professional leave during a 13 month period.

Berman says he’s raising JCPS’s stature, but local education leaders say they want him home more often.

During a time of tight budgets and layoffs, most school districts are cutting down on travel. In Jefferson County Public Schools, teachers and administrators are limited to one district-funded trip per year for professional development.

But we’ve learned that Superintendent Dr. Sheldon Berman is on the road a lot more than that.

WHAS11 filed open records requests to see how many days Sheldon Berman has taken Professional Leave and to find out where he’s going.

We determined that between June 30th, 2008 and July 31th of this year, Berman spent 40 work days, or two full months, on the road.

While Berman says much of that time was spent seeking new sources of funding and raising the district’s profile, some local education leaders believe he’s spending too much time away from the office.

The destinations reach across thousands of miles to Austin, Boston, Orlando, Washington, California, Canada, and even Cape Town, South Africa.

These are not the travels of a pilot or a movie star, but of Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Sheldon Berman. He sits on several organizations’ boards and often attends national and international educator meetings.

“The vast majority of any travel I’ve had has been paid for by other organizations or grants,” said Berman. “We’ve had some outstanding grants.”

Berman says part of his job as Superintendent of the nearly 100,000 student Jefferson County Public Schools district is to meet with foundations, businesses and government leaders.

“If the travel is related to a grant that brings a great deal of money into the district and benefits the district and the students, then that travel’s probably worthwhile,” said Brent McKim, President of the Jefferson County Teachers Association.

But McKim says all trips are not worth Berman’s $1,000 a day salary.

“Certainly at that salary the superintendent makes, it’s appropriate for him to look at that. It’s appropriate for the school board to look at that,” McKim said.

Some school board members are taking a closer look than ever. “If I’m on the fence on go here or not go there, I’d like the superintendent to be here in Louisville, Kentucky,” said School Board Member Stephen Imhoff. Imhoff says Berman’s main job is overseeing children’s education.

This year, only 33 of the system’s 133 schools met “No Child Left Behind” goals, representing a 13% drop from last year. In August, Berman received a “C” from the majority of respondents to a teacher’s survey. Teacher’s used the words “hypocrite”, “arrogant”, and “self serving” to describe him.

Former JCTA Executive Director Steve Neal, who sat on the selection committee that brought Berman from a small district in Massachusetts in 2007, is now critical of Berman. “Dr. Berman is way out of the norm in the amount of travel,” said Neal. “He’s hired at almost 300-thousand dollars a year to run a billion dollar business and he has no place being gone so much.”

Neal says some of Berman’s trips were not necessary, including a visit to Manitoba, Canada to see polar bears with the director of the Louisville Zoo last October. Neal says at that time, he was trying to address important school-related issues with Berman. “I think it was a poor judgment of timing to go look at polar bears,” said Neal.

Berman says the trip was important. “I think it drew attention to one, the endangered species and two, the work that the Louisville Zoo is doing,” Berman said. Berman was appointed to the Zoo Board after the trip, but that isn’t why he said he took it. “I did a broadcast back to four schools here while I was on that trip,” he said.

School board member Imhoff questions its impact. “I even looked up the North Pole on the Internet, so that was a little bit of a benefit to me,” Imhoff said.

In late May, Berman left the United States again, attending the World Congress on Civic Education Conference, in Cape Town, South Africa, where he was a presenter.

Since wind and ice storms pushed back the end of school, the trip ended up corresponding with the last week of classes.

“We did hear from a number of our teacher members who were concerned about the superintendent being away during the last week of school,” said Brent McKim. “And they point out that they’re not allowed to take personal days or take off during the last week of school, even though they have a daughter or a son getting
married.” “They only work a 187 day year and I work a 260 day year. That’s a much different context,” said Berman.

Berman missed every single graduation.

“Not attending graduations is symbolic in a negative way,” said Steve Neal. “It sends a wrong signal to the staff, the teachers, the parents and the students.”

“I Think the only thing I really missed was the graduations. I really didn’t miss the end of school. In fact, I was in touch with the district all the way through that by both cell phone and e-mail,” Berman said.

That’s not acceptable to school board member Imhoff. “We would not like for that to happen again,” Imhoff said. “The last few weeks of school are very important.”

Berman says there was another reason he didn’t alter his plans.

“At the end of that, which was after school ended here, I planned a vacation attached to that,” Berman said. “So that was one period of time when I actually was gonna take a little bit of a break.”

Despite criticism of his travels, Berman says it’s vital to bringing JCPS more national
prominence. “There’s a fine balance between restricting funding and preserving resources and saying we have to be out there and hustle for more resources. And at a time like this, we need to pursue as many competitive grants as we possibly can.

Most of the costs of Dr. Berman’s trips were paid by outside sources. In most cases, the money didn’t come directly from the school district’s budget.

So, Page One counted 18 days.

Based directly on information from Berman, KSN&C counted 5 days from Dec 2007 to June 2008 and another 4 by January 2009 - for a total of 9 days.

WHAS's open records request showed that between June 30th, 2008 and July 31th of this year, Berman spent 40 work days on the road.

If Berman refuted WHAS's claim it didn't get into the story; but that seems unlikely for a professional journalist.

So unless Berman traveled 35 days between Jan 22 and July 31st of 2009, it sure looks like I got myself ...snookered. I have written to Berman for clarification.

There's more; again from Walser:

Superintendent’s credit card bills
reveal taste for fine dining
When WHAS11 asked for Dr. Sheldon Berman’s credit card statements, we discovered expensive meals at some of Louisville’s finest establishments. Some education leaders believe now’s not the time for those types of expenses.

Jefferson County Public Schools has nearly 100,000 students and 16,000 employees, so what’s a few hundred dollars here and there?

It’s a lot, when you’re laying off dozens of janitors and cafeteria workers and cutting back on district programs, according to some local education leaders.

In this time of budget cutbacks, we thought it was only fair to take a look at Dr. Sheldon Berman’s credit card bills.

The expense reports look like those you might expect from the Chief Executive Officer of any large corporation here in Louisville. After all, JCPS Superintendent Sheldon Berman’s budget is bigger than most at almost $1 billion.

But the difference is that these bills aren’t being paid by shareholder, they’re being picked up by you, the taxpayer.

We found bills for meals at some of Louisville’s most exclusive restaurants, including Lilly’s, Napa River Grill, Seviche and Le Relais.

Dr. Berman says the $200 or $300 dinners are few and far between.

“You would find very few of those on my credit card bill,” said Berman. “If you found more than 4 or 5, I’d be surprised.”

But we found twice that many bills from three or four star restaurants at a cost to the district of more than $1,400.

The delicacies Dr. Berman’s guests enjoyed included crusted sea bass, snapper and trout. Berman says the expensive meals were mainly to reward outside review committees and to impress applicants for some of the school district’s top jobs.

“When you’re trying to bring somebody from a major district and you’re trying to show them that Louisville’s a great place to be, you want to share with them not the most expensive restaurants because these are not the most expensive in Louisville, but a nice place that would interest them and make them feel more at home,” he said.

School board member Stephen Imhoff says he was not aware of all the meals. “You just mentioned this to me. Sometimes, school board members are the last people to know things,” Imhoff said. “Because of the economic situation, we need to save as much money as we can,” said Imhoff. “A hundred dollars here and a hundred dollars there is significant.”

“It sends a horrible signal to people that are working hard everyday to make a living and paying taxes to see somebody do so much spending,” said former Jefferson County Teachers Association Executive Director Steve Neal. “So much money that could be better directed toward the education of children.”

We also discovered a bill the district paid for a $300 a night hotel room.

Not [the way] teachers would like to see money spent, especially at a time with declining student test scores, [Neal says.] “They see textbooks. They see reading materials. They see extended school services, even if it’s only for a few kids,” said Neal. “If we’re in a hard budget time, I share in that pain of that time as well,” said Berman.

Berman says he’s declined his allotted raise in recognition of the economic downturn, which was much more than all of the expenses at fancy restaurants on his credit card.

And your superintendent says cutting back on costs like travel and fine dining could damage JCPS’s image nationally.

“You want to be very careful to not lose the prominence that Jefferson County has achieved in the national arena,” said Berman. Prominence Berman says helps bring in millions of dollars in grant money…for what he considers a very small investment from local taxpayers.

Berman told us that he travels and spends far less now than he did as superintendent of the Hudson Public Schools system in Massachusetts, which is much smaller.
Writing at The Ville Voice, Jake is doing the happy dance.

Told Ya So: Berman Wasting Your Money

Jefferson County Public Schools superintendent Sheldon Berman loves to spend your tax dollars (and grant money) on fancy travel around the world. Places like Austin, Boston, Orlando, Washington, California, Canada, South Africa...


Anonymous said...

You weren't the only one that was snookered. Begs the question of whether Louisvlle is a town that is easily snookered (felner), or if it doesn't value its education leadership enough to do thorough background analysis before hiring. The only thing Berman fears losing national prominence in is himself.

Anonymous said...

The morale at JCPS is terrible since Berman arrived. That's superior leadership! Thanks Berman.

Anonymous said...

But is it fair to simply pick on Dr. Berman? What about asking for Dr. Stewart Silberman's receipts? We never heard what the H-L found there? Will we ever?

Anonymous said...

No one is picking on Dr. Berman. Let's see, 40 days professional leave. How many vacation days? Throw time off counted as sick days...and he is never in the district. Not to mention, creating positions for his out of town buddies, and then giving them 'extra' vacation days (required to recruit the best candidates). How about his Executive Assistant? Approving her 'training' leave...where exactly is she being 'trained'? She told members of the Board she need to care for her sick mother. No one is picking on Dr. Berman, they are just counting the days until his contract is up.

Anonymous said...

2:01 Really? Comparing Berman to Stu Silberman? Not even close. Come on, the H-L isn't going to do a story when they DON'T find anything.