Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

Why was Mort Sherman Let Go?

This is the question that I’ve been getting from a lot of puzzled friends and neighbors since Dr. Sherman announced that he was resigning as superintendent.

Yes, he technically resigned, but let’s be honest: He didn’t wish to leave Alexandria, because he didn’t believe that his work was done. After five years, the reforms that he implemented and the management systems that he put into place to turn around a school system that had been in decline were starting to pay dividends.  These dividends were most notably evident in the transformation of T.C. Williams, and the progress made toward the goals established in the 2010-2015 strategic plan, including a 21st century curriculum and successful efforts to close achievement gaps. (http://www.acps.k12.va.us/board/strategic-plan/division-goals.pdf)

Despite all that, he was shown the door by a newly-elected school board that made it clear to him early on that his services were no longer wanted and which treated him poorly in public meetings. Eight members of the school board were willing to pay him a package worth about a year of his salary, funded out of taxpayer dollars, of course, to close the deal. (For all I know, he could have demanded more, because there were two years left on his contract.) School Board member Marc Williams was the lone dissenter.

I have a few theories for why I believe Dr. Sherman was such a polarizing figure in the community:

  • Not long after he arrived, he established greater oversight of and accountability for teachers and principals than had previously been in place.  This led to a turnover of some under-performing teachers and administrators, which was welcomed by many parents but viewed negatively by the teachers’ association.
  • He wasn’t afraid to speak the truth about the deficiencies that he saw in our schools, including the growing achievement gap between our minority and white students.  As a friend of mine likes to say, change agents are often controversial because they hold a mirror up to individuals and problems, and often people don’t like what they see.
  • He was impatient with the status quo and—some say—tried to change too much too fast. Teachers, to a greater extent, and parents, to a lesser extent, found the changes unsettling. Many of his reform-related changes happened simultaneously with widely-adopted new technologies that were sweeping the education world, such as Blackboard and online grade books. Teachers who were struggling to master new methods of posting grades and collecting assignments—adjustments that would have been required of them by any school district that was focused on best practices—identified their discomfort with Dr. Sherman.
  • Dr. Sherman was frustrated by the fact that when he arrived our school division did not have a division-wide curriculum, only SOL pacing guides, a poor substitute. Developing a roadmap for what every kindergarten through 12th-grade student should learn in every subject and course was an important priority of his (and in my opinion, one of his most significant achievements as superintendent), but it was yet another layer of change for teachers. (Go to the “Links” tab on this blog page to see the ACPS curriculum by course and grade.)
  • His personality rubbed many people the wrong way.  What was bold and self-confident to some was brash and arrogant to others.  He wasn’t hired to be Mr. Congeniality, and he didn’t try to be.  A few individuals over the years came to dislike him intensely for this reason or that, and made it their mission to personally attack him in the public sphere. Occasionally I meet someone who speaks of Dr. Sherman as if he’s evil incarnate. When I ask the person if they have ever met him personally, they’ll often say, “No, but that’s what I’ve heard about him.”
  • The financial mismanagement in the capital improvements budget that was identified more than a year ago was poorly understood by the community.  Proper procedures weren’t followed, but no funds were diverted for personal use, no laws were broken and all projects were completed.  Two long-time highly-regarded employees lost their jobs, and others subsequently departed. And yet the story was sensationalized in the local news media, and one city council member called for Dr. Sherman’s resignation. Meanwhile, there were several city employees who had been charged with embezzling money—yes, that’s a real crime—but no one (rightly) was calling for the city manager’s resignation.

These factors and others set the stage for a school board election last fall in which a few of the successful candidates openly declared their opposition toward Dr. Sherman.  It was a fractious relationship from the beginning of their term.

In the end, one fact stands above all others: The previous school board was able to work constructively with Dr. Sherman to implement changes that brought tangible benefits for ACPS across the spectrum, including the most disadvantaged students.  In contrast, the current school board could not forge a productive working relationship with him.  The costs to ACPS and all that it works for—most of all the students—will be substantial: A quarter of a million dollars in settlement paid to Dr. Sherman, the inevitable dislocation associated with an unplanned interim period, a sense of confusion and betrayal on the part of many in the community, and the cost of a premature search for a replacement.

To paraphrase school board member Marc Williams’ statement opposing the contract amendment: Whether you like him or not, we can’t alter the facts and the evidence that our schools made forward progress under Dr. Sherman’s watch. The bottom line is that Dr. Sherman left the school division in a better place than he found it.


On a personal note, I met Dr. Sherman during his first week on the job in Alexandria, when I was serving my first term as president of the PTA Council.  It was clear to me from that initial meeting that he would be accessible to PTAs and parents.  He attended countless PTA meetings, met quarterly with PTA presidents, and spoke to groups of parents in their living rooms. When I talk with PTA presidents in neighboring jurisdictions, they are in awe of the level of access that our PTAs had to our superintendent.

At that first meeting with him, his top agenda item was his desire for the two of us to collaborate on an event that would bring the community together after the divisive departure of his predecessor.  The PTA Council subsequently hosted two highly-successful community reads featuring the books A Whole New Mind and NurtureShock.

A former high school English teacher, Dr. Sherman took a personal interest in my writing projects. Occasionally we would pass each other in the halls of a school that he was visiting, and he’d ask with a smile, “How’s that book coming along?” I didn’t have to tell him that little progress had been made. He knew the reason: I’m a busy mom and a committed ACPS volunteer.

Coming soon: What’s Next? How our community moves forward from here.

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