Analysis: Morton Sherman’s legacy mired in controversy

Analysis: Morton Sherman’s legacy mired in controversy

By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

With Morton Sherman’s abrupt departure, the former superintendent leaves Alexandria City Public Schools in turmoil — a word that could sum up much of his time with the district.

Sherman arrived on the scene in 2008, just months after the tumultuous departure of former Superintendent Rebecca Perry. Often clashing with school board members in her final years, Perry was ousted in dramatic fashion: They changed the locks on her after ending her contract early.

Though well respected as a veteran educator — Sherman came to Alexandria after eight years leading the Cherry Hill, N.J., school district — he had a reputation as a man unafraid of confrontation. He lived up to it.

Among the dramatic and often controversial changes made under his tenure, the city’s two middle schools were broken up into five; the adult education program underwent an overhaul; and a new curriculum was unveiled. Sherman also routinely drew fire for his penchant for hiring consultants, including a local reporter whom he tasked with tweaking the district’s communication plans.

From where former Vice Mayor Kerry Donley sat, the slew of changes and initiatives — too long to list — left the district in disarray. The disruption put a heavy burden on teachers in particular, he said.

“I think that subjecting a system to constant change, it’s hard for the teaching staff in particular to focus on the task at hand, and that’s educating students,” Donley said. “I would hope the school board would look to try to maintain some degree of stability. Let’s enhance what’s working; let’s make changes where changes are warranted.

“It seems like the tenure under Sherman was one of constant change. I don’t think the school district can function if it’s under constant change and turmoil.”

At one point, a group of disgruntled teachers banded together to form the ACPS Underground, an organization that took to the Internet to anonymously attack Sherman’s initiatives. Former school board member Blanche Maness chalked up the oft-intense criticism of Sherman to what she believes may have been an inability or unwillingness to connect with the district’s teaching staff.

“The one thing that I always felt [strongly] about is that the team players, the folks in the schools — and that’s not just teachers, that’s clerical staff, that’s your cafeteria staff, your paraprofessionals — should be clear on what it is they are expected to do. And they should have ample input,” Maness said. “I believe that when you’re coming with a big idea, it needs to be shared.

“…‘Do you think you can do this? What do you need? Can you fit it in the schedule?’ That’s the conversation that I don’t know, that I’m not real sure, was had.”

Maness, who didn’t seek re-election last year, stressed that she would not have been part of those conversations, regardless of whether they occurred.

And then there were the other troubles that the district weathered under Sherman’s reign. Officials saw enrollment rapidly outpace available space. The state labeled T.C. Williams a “persistently lowest-achieving” school after years of poor Standards of Learning test results, which prompted a massive transformation effort. Attempts to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students saw inconclusive results.

But perhaps the most serious challenge to Sherman’s authority came in December 2011. An independent audit of the district’s capital improvement budget, spurred by contractors’ complaints that they hadn’t been paid for work, found employees had moved money around without authorization — intentionally flouting ACPS policy. That discovery prompted Donley to call for Sherman’s resignation.

Sherman, with the school board’s unwavering support, weathered the audit — which he commissioned — and efforts to oust him.

Despite the controversial dustups, Sherman did make headway in improving the district, Maness said. The major victories she touted included rolling out a new, districtwide curriculum, rapidly remaking T.C. Williams, improving the education of special-needs students and making inroads with Alexandria’s large population of English language learners.

Like Maness — who served as a local principal before later joining the school board — City Councilor Justin Wilson also held up T.C.’s transformation as a positive during Sherman’s tenure.

“I think we have clearly made progress in many of our schools,” he said. “We have [seen] some incredible improvement under the leadership of Suzanne Maxey at T.C. that we can be very proud of. We’ve seen an influx over the last several years of students in our schools, and to the extent that we have more kids in the schools, it is a sign that we have things going well.”

Though he acknowledged Sherman’s polarizing position within the community, Wilson declined to comment on it. He believes the discussion should be squarely on what the district needs going forward and what residents want in a new superintendent.

“You can always find things in a leader’s tenure to criticize or support,” Wilson said. “I think the key right now is to move forward. We’re only going to be successful if we’re all kind of working together as we define what we want to see in the next superintendent, and what types of things we want to see he or she focus on.”

Donley, though, did not hesitate to grade Sherman.

“I think there were some good things and bad things,” he said. “If I were a teacher, I’d give him a C-minus.”