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Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

Correction (published July 31, 2012): Eugene School District teachers will have five unpaid furlough days but will receive previously agreed-to experience- and education-based pay increases of 3.7 percent in the 2012-13 school year. A Front Page story on Sunday incorrectly said the wage increases had been reduced to 1.85 percent.

When the Eugene School Board announced last year that it was hiring as its new superintendent a 62-year-old administrator from the Louisville, Ky., school district whose contract there had not been renewed, Dave Perez had his doubts.

Perez - executive director of the Eugene YMCA, which has had ongoing property negotiations with the district - figured Sheldon Berman for a guy more likely to be a caretaker than an innovator, somebody putting in time until retirement.

But it hasn't turned out that way. By most accounts, Berman hit the deck running at Lane County's largest district a year ago, and he has revealed himself as a data-driven administrator with a strong work ethic willing to make changes.

A compact man with a genial expression who encourages people to call him "Shelley," Berman is known to work late into the evening, often sending out e-mails to colleagues at 11 p.m. or midnight. He has set his sights on restoring the Eugene School District's reputation for academic excellence and innovation.

"This guy has more energy than I can believe," Perez said. "He has this vision to change the education dynamic in this community and it's at the forefront of every decision he makes."

Whether his drive is enough to make a dent in the problems Eugene - like many school districts around the state - is facing remains to be seen.

Eugene's enrollment is dwindling. Its employee costs, including health care and retirement expenses, keep rising. And state funding is stagnant or not increasing fast enough to cover rising costs.

The result has been layoffs, school closures, larger classroom sizes and reduced educational offerings.

Berman, in his first year on the job, has tried to make what fixes he can, recommending to his board both sweeping and small adjustments - from tinkering with the minutiae of school board meetings to bringing the four high schools to a common schedule.

But what he really wants is more public funding for education. Hoping to lobby at the state level for change, Berman notes that in 1997-98, the state ranked 15th in the nation in per-pupil education spending but that by 2008-09, the Oregon had fallen to 33rd.

Oregon educators have slowly gotten used to worsening conditions for students - like a frog in a pot of water that's slowly been brought to a boil, Berman said.

"I feel like a frog that just jumped into boiling water," he said.

The school board will present its evaluation of Berman's first year on the job at their Wednesday meeting, and while board President Jennifer Geller declined to comment extensively in advance of the public review, she said the board impression is generally positive. Berman will receive a $10,000 pay increase in the coming school year, a raise he negotiated in the three-year contract the district signed with him when he was hired.

Berman "has brought an exceptional level of energy and expertise to the position," she said. "He has spent a significant amount of time learning about the district, but also bringing board members along to look at data we haven't considered in the past or to look at it in a new way."

In the broader community, Berman has drawn praise and criticism.

Parents, teachers and those who track public education like his instructional background and breadth of experience. But some worry that he may be moving too quickly and without sufficient collaboration with teachers and community members.

District in trouble

When Berman replaced retiring longtime Superintendent George Russell a year ago, he took on an organization that had just closed four schools and laid off more than 100 teachers to bridge a $22 million gap between expenses and revenue.

Berman didn't expect to make big changes in his first year on the job, planning instead to get the measure of the schools and the community first, he said.

But that idea fizzled as he became aware of just how deeply the spending cuts had hit the district.

While he saw good administrators and teachers, a strong relationship with the University of Oregon and a reputation for excellence, he also saw a district in shock.

"People don't realize it," Berman said. "They say, 'Oh, you went through the cuts,' " as though the decisions about school closures and staffing reductions were the hard part.

In fact, the real challenge has been the day-after-day reality of larger class sizes and fewer class offerings that students and teachers face, he said.

"This district went through real trauma," he said.

Last September, when Berman saw just how big classes had become, with as many as 37 students in elementary school classrooms and 40 to 50 students in some middle and high school classrooms, he tapped district reserve funds to return almost six full-time-equivalent teacher positions at seven elementary schools.

That brought some relief, but created confusion for students and teachers at the start of October when they were settling into the school-year routine.

It's why the Eugene Education Association, the teachers union, appreciates and yet harbors reservations about Berman's style, union President Tad Shannon said.

The district took a scant week from the decision to re configured classrooms, and the process uprooted students and teachers, with some teachers reassigned to different buildings and having to make the move over a weekend, Shannon said.

"A little bit more collaboration on the front end would have made that a smoother transition," he said.

When Berman turned his attention to the district's high schools, he said he was stunned to discover that there weren't enough teachers to provide full course loads for all students. It left teens with one or two or sometimes even three free class periods a day.

Berman asked the principals to give him a precise count. Districtwide, it turned out that only 32 percent of the high school students were in classes all day long.

He took the numbers to the board and the budget committee, drew public attention to them and persuaded the board to add back enough teachers to fully schedule all the ninth-graders in 2012-13. The district doesn't have anywhere near enough money to add back teachers to provide full course loads for remaining three high school grades, however.

The superintendent also breathed new life into a languishing effort to get all the high schools on the same schedule, something district principals had been discussing for more than a year as a way of reducing administrative costs, eliminating inequities in student learning and teacher workloads and making it easier to schedule teachers working in more than one school.

Under his direction, the district convened administrators and teachers to review several class scheduling options and recommend one.

The process was at odds with the district's past school-by-school decision making, Shannon said.

The union has taken no position on the concept of a common schedule, but teachers have filed two grievances over the process the district used to make the change, although one is likely to be withdrawn, Shannon said.

"Many of us see that there are some benefits to having a common schedule. ... But we believe that our contract provides for a pretty significant level of teacher involvement in those kinds of decisions," he said.

The union believes its contract requires a vote of its members at each of the schools to make such a change, he said.

"Had Shelley gone to the high schools and made his pitch, he's an articulate guy, and I think he could have sold people on it," Shannon said.

The district didn't propose such a vote because it disagrees that the contract requires it, Berman said.

"Sometimes process is really good," he said. "But you have to balance that by getting results."

When it came to re opening the contract with teachers to discuss wage and benefit changes for the 2012-13 school year, the process was better, Shannon said.

"Shelley proved that he was interested in working collaboratively with teachers to come to a fair and speedy resolution," he said.

The result: Experience- and education-based step pay increases in the contract that originally were negotiated at 3.7 percent were cut to 1.85 percent and teachers agreed to five unpaid furlough days.

Data-driven decisions

Board members approved in February a new way of allocating funds to schools with larger populations of needy students, but before they did so, Berman's staff developed a needs index that assigned a specific value to the indicators, such as the number of students eligible for free and reduced price meals, and the number of students transferring in and out of a school.

Others have noticed Berman's interest in data.

"He does look to the data to give him direction," said Bethel School District Superintendent Colt Gill. "Whenever he discusses something like the common schedule, he brings an extensive amount of data to the table."

Gill and Springfield district Superintendent Nancy Golden meet monthly with Berman, looking for how they can help one another.

Berman benefits from Gill and Golden's longtime experience with local and state issues, while he brings a broad national perspective to the table.

"He's experienced in big systems and smaller systems and really nationally connected around curriculum and instruction," Golden said.

For the most part, Berman's recommendations to the school board have played well in the community.

"I really like him," said Eileen Nittler, a parent of four teenagers, who was pleased with the common schedule proposal and the effort to make sure students are fully scheduled.

"It's a problem to have unsupervised teenagers," she said. She appreciated that the common schedule work group effort went somewhere. "I also liked that there was a result," she said.

Berman gets high marks from David Piercy, a retired school district administrator and the husband of Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy.

David Piercy, who still has ties with many Eugene educators, said teachers he has spoken with have been pleased to see Berman as a frequent visitor in schools and classrooms.

Berman has a doctorate from Harvard, and started his career as a social studies teacher, before moving on to administer first a small district in Massachusetts and then the 100,000-student district in Louisville. The depth of his instructional knowledge caught Mike Garling's attention.

Garling, a former Eugene elementary school principal and current education consultant and an instructor at the University of Oregon, said Berman understands the principles of effective teaching.

"Oftentimes, superintendents either don't have a deep background in instruction or have been away from it for quite a while," Garling said. "Administrators need to be connected with what's going on in their schools."

Next challenges

While Berman has been criticized for moving too quickly, he also has shown a willingness to slow things down.

Earlier this year, the school board had planned to put in place a new method for evaluating teachers.

All districts in the state must do that to comply with new federal requirements. But after bringing in a consultant to help guide the process, and with a board vote on a new evaluation plan set for June, Berman decided that the district needed more time. "I wanted to make sure we did it right," he said. "If you do evaluations right, it really drives good teaching."

Also on tap for the coming school year: implementing the first steps in a facilities plan that includes replacing many aging schools. The work totals $230 million, and would be implemented with bond measures put up for voter approval.

Critics already have attacked the facilities plan as throwing too much money at language immersion programs at the expense of other schools, and for recommending closure of the aged Edison Elementary School, which is beloved by its neighborhood.

Community members will have the chance to weigh in on the facilities proposals at public meetings in the fall.

Joan Obie, a member of the district's budget committee, counts herself among Berman's fans and said she will be among those working to pass bond measures that benefit students and schools.

But she worries about the district's finances. State funds for schools have been flat or declining while student enrollment figures also are dropping and there's nothing on the horizon to suggest that that will change, she said.

Pulling money from the district's reserves to help put more teachers in classrooms is a practice that concerns Obie.

"I certainly want more teachers," Obie said. "It's a tragedy what's happening to schools. ... I think (Berman) is confident we'll have more funding next year. My concern is, what if we don't?"


Age: 63

Family: Divided. His wife, a professor, lives in Massachusetts. He has a 19-year-old son at Brandeis University, a 20-year-old son who has Down syndrome, and a 14-year-old son who lives with him in Eugene.

Hometown: Chicago.

Currently reading: "Only Connect" by Rudy Crew, the newly hired director of education by the Oregon Education Investment Board.

Pastimes: Watching his 14-year-old son play hockey with the Eugene Generals junior team, photography.

Inspiration: Students. "When I need inspiration, I go visit a kindergarten class," he said.

Surprising: A devoted fencer for 25 years, Berman once coached fencing teams at both Harvard and MIT.

2012-13 Salary: $185,365, plus $13,800 in a tax-sheltered annuity and an auto allowance. Berman does not receive health insurance or retirement benefits.


In his first year, Berman has won school board approval for a variety of changes.

Here are some:

Created a needs index that allocates more money for schools with larger populations of high-needs students.

Began moving the high schools to a common schedule, a new 70-minute, five class-period day with the year divided into three terms.

Made Buena Vista Elementary School into a dual immersion program that serves native Spanish speakers and English speakers, and has increased the number of economically disadvantaged and English language learners attending the school.

Reconfigured the district's equity committee so that it has a higher profile and reports directly to the school board.

Reorganized music and physical education programs so both subjects are taught at all elementary schools.

Brought in a consultant to create a long-range facilities plan that considers the age and condition of buildings and examines creating a specific academic focus at each of the high schools.
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Title Annotation:Local News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 29, 2012
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