VALPARAISO | Valparaiso Schools Superintendent Michael Berta gave the council an update on the state of the school system that included helpful hints on the type of person the council should be seeking for its annual appointment to the school board on Monday.
Berta, who came out of retirement in August 2012 to serve as interim superintendent, will return to retirement on Aug. 6. He said he took over a school district that was in both organizational and financial disarray and has been working to restore respect for and the morale of the system.
"Collaboration was at a minimum, and people seemed to work at isolation," he said. "I perceived an absence of trust and, to a degree, respect. There was a fear of losing jobs because of the budget, and the rumor mill was active."
He revived the committee that had been working on a strategic plan and began the school accreditation process along with other initiatives to begin building on the concept of a 21st century education. For the first time the technology for all grades was aligned so students could build on their abilities each year and graduate with a high level of skill in technology.
Financially, the schools were in the process of digging out of a deficit situation that has seen it go from a deficit of $1.5 million in 2012 to a balance now of $1.7 million. That was done through cuts in positions and putting up with larger class sizes. Refinancing $12 million in bonds enabled the district to do some long-delayed maintenance without cost to taxpayers.
While the district is in much better financial shape, the next superintendent and the new board appointee will have to look at issues like negotiating a new teacher contract next year and dealing with a referendum to get money for operating and possibly building additions or new buildings.
The building situation has been studied along with the enrollment prospects for the coming years as the current board wrestles with the best way to provide the facilities for that 21st century education. Berta said kids come to school with more needs than they used to, and mental health experts, something the district is woefully short of, are needed to guide them and their families.
Not all the news was bad. Berta said academic achievement is still high with several schools earning state and national honors and 50 children getting perfect scores on the ISTEP tests. The schools need to continue to provide the training for the teachers and the technology to continue that kind of excellence, he said.
He said communication and the relationship with the community, which was very low two years ago, has come a long way but is still a "work in progress." The Lumenus issue in January, when the board agreed to a contract with Lumenus USA Inc. to bring up to 30 students from China to enroll as seniors, was a setback in that process and brought the biggest crowds to board meetings he's ever seen.
The council will hear comments from the public on the qualifications of the board appointee. Karl Cender's term on the board expires June 30. The council will take applications in May, and the finalists will be interviewed in June with the selection being made at the June 23 council meeting.