Marc Williams cast only dissenting vote to break Sherman’s contract: Here’s Why

Alexandria School Board member Marc Williams was the only dissenting vote during Thursday night’s decision to release Morton Sherman from his three-year contract as superintendent.

The 8 to 1 vote, held during a special session, happened quickly and without public debate, except for Williams’s plea to his board members to oppose the motion.

Williams, who has represented the middle part of the city for five years, argued that the negotiated $281,507 in salary and paid leave was an “unjustified expenditure of public funds” and that Sherman has had a good track record of raising student achievement.

Here is a copy of his full remarks:

The Board has a contract with Dr. Sherman to serve as superintendent through June of 2015. Now before the Board is an amendment to that contract that represents an agreement between the Superintendent and the Board to end the contract nearly two years early. In exchange for Dr. Sherman’s departure, the amendment would obligate the Board to make a substantial payment to Dr. Sherman. I am opposed to this amendment and will be voting against it.

Each time I have run for election, I have pledged that I would be a good steward of our taxpayers’ dollars. I have taken this fiduciary duty very seriously and this payment is an unjustified expenditure of public funds. These funds are funds that should be spent on our students and our teachers.

In addition to this imprudent use of taxpayer funds, this settlement is not being done in a way that promotes an orderly transition and the stability maintained by such a transition. Any transition should be done over a sufficient amount of time to find a replacement superintendent and to provide for a smooth handoff. This is in the best interest of our students. Instead, this change is being done abruptly, only days before the beginning of the new school year. While I have no doubt that our administrators and teachers will perform superbly as they always do, this is not a sound way in which to conduct a transition. If you vote to accept this agreement, the Board will be required to find and hire a new superintendent within six months – in other words, by March 1st of next year. I am concerned that looking for a new superintendent in the first half of the school year is not the ideal time to find the highest quality candidates.

The timing of this vote — hastily called and only a day before the Labor Day holiday weekend when families are away or focused on preparing for a new school year — is inconsistent with the transparency that this Board professes that it wants to build with the community.

Also troubling to me is the precedent and pattern that this action sets and its potentially negative impact on Alexandria in the future. Everyone will recall that a previous superintendent, Rebecca Perry, was “bought out” of her contract. This will make Dr. Sherman the second superintendent in a row in Alexandria to be “bought out.” What a perverse recruitment model: In Alexandria, we pay our superintendents to come and we pay them to go.

There will be some who will argue that this action is justified, but their arguments ignore the facts. Founding father and President John Adams famously said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Under Dr. Sherman’s leadership — and for sure, because of the hard work and dedication of our administrators, teachers and staff — Alexandria City Public Schools have made much progress in the last few years. The transformation of TC Williams High School is a crowning achievement. Three years ago, for the first time in recent memory, students at TC passed math in the 80th percentile. Most recently, TC had the highest number of AP test takers in its history and was accredited for the second year in a row. Last year, graduation rates increased for all groups except students receiving special education services. Dr. Sherman and Principal Suzanne Maxey did not rest. They worked with their team to move quickly to address the problems of low achievement of special education and ELL students through the creation of an innovative pilot special education program and the International Academy. Also last year, Dr. Sherman implemented the Satellite campus to meet the needs of students for whom a traditional high school model is not effective. This type of continuous improvement attitude is exactly what I as a Board member want to see.

With the Board’s approval, Dr. Sherman has taken evidence-based steps to raise achievement of our struggling students. Examples include actions embedded in the ELL plan, the Elementary Reading Guidelines, the Inclusion and Autism plans, the International Academy, and an inspiring partnership with Inova Alexandria Hospital to help special education students transition from school to the workplace. Dr. Sherman has moved this division away from simply teaching to the test toward instruction designed to build critical thinking skills. This is being accomplished through the implementation of the ACPS curriculum, with its essential questions and transfer tasks, and continuous improvement in the assessed curriculum, including the use of just-in-time data systems such as SchoolNet that let teachers know whether students have understood and mastered the content. Students in our middle schools now have access to honors classes that once were reserved for only those designated as talented and gifted, and well over 50% of students take Algebra in the 8th grade. Dr. Sherman has quite literally moved ACPS into the 21st century.

While there is much to be proud of, the data show us that there is still much work to do. We must continue to strive for high achievement by each and every student. All of our schools are accredited this year, except for one. This is why the Board — upon Dr. Sherman’s recommendation — extended the amount of time for student learning and staff collaboration at Jefferson-Houston. We see in schools like Jefferson-Houston that our struggling students are making progress; they are growing. But, instead of celebrating this progress and rolling up their sleeves to accelerate this growth, the critics heap recriminations upon recriminations. But, we all know that recrimination never taught a child to read; recrimination never helped a student master a math concept; and recrimination never raised up a child to help him to believe that he can achieve at high levels. I urge my fellow Board members to resist these recriminations, and raise up our students and our community. I ask you to vote against this agreement.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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