Berman plans to remain school chief until 2022

CARL RUSSO/Staff photoSchool Superintendent Sheldon Berman 

School Superintendent Sheldon Berman plans to remain on the job for three more years.

Berman received a two-year extension on his contract in a 4-1 vote by the School Committee last week.

Berman’s current contract is set to expire June 30, 2020. The contract extension approved last week will make him the leader of Andover public schools through June 30, 2022. He said he will then retire from the job.

Committee members said many hours of careful thought went into their decision, and feedback from the community, parents and teachers was largely taken into consideration.

School Committee member Paul Murphy cast the single vote against the contract extension, favoring a one-year extension instead of two.

Though he referred to Berman as a “high-functioning, organized and inspired leader” who has been good for Andover since he arrived in June 2015, Murphy said there were “distractions” that entered into his vote.

“The distractions, both real and imagined, have proven to be detrimental, time consuming and frankly, embarrassing at times,” Murphy said.

School Committee member Tracey Spruce mentioned the “distractions” in her comments at the meeting as well, noting that her decision, though largely in support of the two-year extension, was not an easy one.

“I did consider some of the challenges that we faced over the past couple of years,” she said. “I considered the community’s concern over a 3-year-old letter. I agree, it reflected poor judgment by Dr. Berman, but I also considered that it had no adverse impact on the subject of the letter, whose contract was renewed for three successive years.”

A six-page letter, written by Berman in 2016 and obtained by The Eagle-Tribune, called upon the athletic director and high school principal to remove then-hockey coach Chris Kuchar from his position. Berman’s primary concern was Kuchar’s treatment of Berman's son, who was on the team at the time.

The letter explained Berman’s “serious concerns” about Kuchar’s methodologies and treatment of his son. He wrote that his son’s treatment on the team came “close to the category of abuse.”

The letter was sent to high school Principal Philip Conrad and former Athletic Director Don Doucette on March 28, 2016.

Spruce said the incident involving the letter, however, did not overshadow Berman’s list of accomplishments.

Berman’s successes mentioned by Spruce included the superintendent's work to reduce elementary class sizes, modernization of an outdated high school class schedule, work toward eliminating full-day kindergarten tuition, oversight of two major school building projects, and investment in special education.

Spruce also acknowledged in her comments the posts looking to oust Berman that have circulated on social media sites like Facebook, as well as lawn and protest signs calling for his firing. Though she touched on those issues at the meeting, she said they were not taken into consideration in her decision.

“I did not consider unsubstantiated rumors and conspiracy theories that continue to circulate in the community despite a complete lack of evidence. I did not consider lawn signs, or the Townsman ad that misspelled the word superintendent,” she said.

Spruce said she worries that Andover will have difficulty finding a good successor to Berman, questioning who would want to come to a school district where the superintendent is constantly vilified and blamed.

The broad search for a new superintendent is expected to begin in the fall of 2021. School Committee member Shannon Scully said the position will not be easy to fill. Like Spruce, she said the negativity in the community makes it difficult to recruit highly talented candidates.

Scully also addressed the number of adults who have criticized Berman on social media, referring to them as “keyboard warriors.”

“I know that there are some that think Andover is an attractive enough community, that everyone with a superintendent license in the state would be eager to work here, but realistically, this is a tough place to work,” Scully said. “It’s not made easier when keyboard warriors spread misinformation on social media, or take out misspelled negative ads in the local newspaper.”

Though she said she did not intend to discuss Berman's 2016 letter in her comments at the meeting, School Committee member Susan McCready also acknowledged the document that generated so much controversy in the community.

She said the letter was a big talking point during contract renewal discussions.

“While I consider athletics to be an important part of a public education system, it is not the primary purpose for our education system,” she said.

In addition to the two-year extension, the contract also includes two other changes for Berman.

Currently, the district contributes $22,000 a year to his retirement account. Under the contract, for the two-year extension only, that figure would change to the lesser of $25,000 a year or the amount that is allowed by the Internal Revenue Service.

The maximum number of vacation days that are available to be carried over were also decreased from 40 to 35 days. Request for approval of vacation days carried over will require approval from the chairperson of the committee under the new contract, rather than the full committee.

Berman did not attend the School Committee meeting, but called in from his vacation.

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