Debbie Wesslund

(Editor’s note: This story was updated at 1 p.m. on January 18. Insider Louisville spoke to or contacted by e-mail all Board of Education member, and none reported being willing to change their original position on Dr. Sheldon Berman’s contract as superintendent of Jefferson County Schools.)

Debbie Wesslund says she would rather be concentrating on improving local education and recruiting the next superintendent for Jefferson County Public Schools.

Instead, Wesslund and other Jefferson County Board of Education members are fighting “The Battle of Berman, Round 2: Revenge of the JCTA.”

The first round was the board’s 5-to-2 vote on November 22 not to renew Berman’s contract.

Round two, insiders tell Insider Louisville, is an escalating, behind-the-scenes effort to extend Dr. Sheldon Berman’s contract as JCPS superintendent, a contract that will end in June if there is no re-vote.

Since the first vote, insiders say, pro-Berman forces have launched a concerted lobbying effort for a re-vote, an effort coordinated in part by Brent McKim, Jefferson County Teachers Association president.

“I lay a lot of this at the feet of Brent McKim,” said Steve Neal, the retired JCTA chairman, who had his consulting contract with the JCTA canceled in 2010 over escalating disagreements with McKim.

McKim’s plan involves marshaling the business community and convincing African-American leaders “if Berman goes, the student assignment plan goes,” Neal said.

McKim’s strategy also includes recruiting union members to pressure Larry Hujo, the District Seven school board member who’s a union organizer and representative.

Last week, Hujo replied by e-mail to an Insider Louisville query about pressure to change his original vote not to renew Berman’s contract: “I know not only myself but other Board members have had a few people ask us to reconsider, but I don’t believe anyone will change their mind. My decision has been made.”

McKim denies he’s masterminding the effort to push for a re-vote. “There is no conspiracy” to pressure school board members to keep Berman, he said.

That said, McKim added that he’s hoping the community will coalesce around the effort to make certain Berman stays in the superintendent’s position.

Two weeks ago, Insider Louisville broke the story that a number of people in Louisville’s business community are pushing for a re-vote. Then, the Jefferson County Teachers Association board endorsed the idea of keeping Berman.

Last weekend, the Courier-Journal editorial board weighed in with an editorial praising the JCTA call to extend Berman’s contract, calling out Wesslund personally, accusing her of engineering a coup to depose Berman “rather than a considered decision about the school district’s leadership.”

What the CJ editorial author omitted is that McKim tried to engineer his own coup.

Last August, Insider Louisville broke the story that McKim recruited David Toborowsky to run in last fall’s school board election in a failed attempt to oust Wesslund from her Third District school board seat – a move meant to increase Berman’s odds of getting a new contract.

JCTA’s political action committee then spent thousand of dollars on Toborowsky’s campaign. But a week before the November 2 election, WAVE TV reporter Eric Flack revealed Tobrowsky, a Tea Party sympathizer, didn’t live in the Third District and Toborowsky withdrew from the race.

Three weeks later, Wesslund, then-chairwoman, and the board voted not to extend Berman’s contract after lengthy closed-session debates.

Asked if the contract vote was payback for the effort to oust her, Wesslund said, “Why would I do that? How could it be payback if (Berman) didn’t do anything? Dr. Berman told me three or four times that he was not getting involved in politics.”

Asked if Wesslund’s vote to oust Berman was payback, McKim said, “No, I don’t think so. She had sincere reasons for wanting a different superintendent. But those reasons don’t match the views of the (JCTA) board.

The JCTA board already “had issues” with Wesslund, which is why its PAC supported Tobrowsky, McKim said.Wesslund lost union support because of differences on salary issues, her refusal to reject charter schools and her refusal to reject initiatives linking teacher pay and evaluations to test scores “that are not valuable or reliable for those purposes,” he said.

McKim’s reasons to keep Berman include:

  • better-than-projected test scores in the context of the number of poor students increasing, a trend that typically drives down scores.
  • Berman’s KidsCARE initiative to teach students social responsibility and build positive relationships with both adults and classmates.
  • Berman’s Healthy Minds initiative placing more nurses in schools, giving students access to healthcare they may not get through their families.
  • Berman’s initiative reducing class sizes.

(Editor’s note: 2010 was the second year in a row that Jefferson County Public Schools had six of the 10 schools in Kentucky with the lowest reading and math scores.)

McKim said JCTA leadership thinks an unfortunate consequence of Wesslund’s leading the vote against renewing Berman’s contract was to shut the community out of a conversation with their elected school board members.

That sentiment was echoed in the Courier-Journal editorial:
What has been missing is a chance for parents, teachers, business leaders and political officials to join in a broad and robust discussion of the public schools’ accomplishments, of the primary challenges that the schools face and of how best to move forward.

But at the same time, the editorial writer argued a search for a new superintendent would be “a distraction” from the work of finding ways to improve test scores and improving an unwieldy school assignment plan.

Wesslund counters, “I based my vote on working with (Berman) …  an accumulation over time of concerns about student achievement. I don’t think he can lead our district. I don’t think he can work with the many people you need to mobilize efforts to make a difference.”

So, will there be a re-vote?

Wesslund said she’s confident there won’t be. A re-vote can only happen if a board of education member who voted no on renewing the contract makes a motion for a re-vote, and that motion has to be seconded by another board member who originally voted no.

Asked if she’s being pressured, Wesslund said, “I was hit by the Courier, but that’s about it.

Asked who is likely to change their vote on the seven-member board, she replied “No one is going to flip.”

Her position was echoed by Carol Haddad, who represents District Six.

“The more (pro-Berman forces) do, the more we know we did the right thing,” Haddad, said. “They’re asking us to (change our vote). But look at the test scores, and we did the right thing.”

Here are the e-mails from the last two members contacted:

Joseph Hardesty, District Four: “I do not plan to change my  vote on Dr. Berman’s contract.  It was a difficult decision that I arrived at after much thought and community input.

Diane Porter, District One, also said she has no plans to change her position.

So, after spending time, money and political capital, the outcome is likely to be exactly the same. All board member tell Insider Louisville that they do not plan to change their positions from the original votes.

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Terry Boyd
Terry Boyd has seven years experience as a business/finance journalist, and eight years a military reporter with European Stars and Stripes. As a banking and finance reporter at Business First, Boyd dealt directly with the most influential executives and financiers in Louisville.

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