The president of the L.J. Hauser Junior High School Parent Teacher Organization, Audrey Korslund, gave a strong defense of Hauser Principal Leslie Berman at last week’s meeting of the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education.
In a nearly six-minute statement during the public comment portion of the meeting, Korslund also suggested that the new administration, led by Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis, undermined Berman.
On Jan. 8, the first day school was in session following the Christmas vacation, Berman suddenly and unexpectedly cleaned out her office and has not returned to work since.
“What happened I do not know,” Korslund told the school board. “I do know one thing. She is not flighty or irresponsible. She didn’t pack up and leave because she had a bad day. My experience tells me she had integrity and intelligence to see what lies ahead.”
Korslund, who is in her second year as the president of the Hauser PTO, said Berman was a dedicated principal.
“Leslie loves Hauser,” Korslund said. “She loves the kids and she loves her job.”
But something changed this year when the new administration arrived.
“This past fall something changed,” Korslund said. “Leslie became less and less cheerful and self-assured. I was very surprised to see on the district website that the assistant principal was moved to a direct report of the superintendent. Was there an attempt to undermine the principal months ago? Our exchanges became more of ‘I’ll have to get back to you’ instead of making a decision like she always had [done before].”
It became clear that Hauser Assistant Principal Stacy Westin was gaining in power and that Berman was losing power. Teachers could see Westin was closer to Sharma-Lewis.
“Leslie became more and more isolated from her staff, she once told me,” Korslund said.
Korslund suggested that Sharma-Lewis used Westin to undermine Berman.
“With just a few short months as superintendent, how could you come to the conclusion that Leslie was not worthy of the support of a vice principal?” Korslund said. “How could a valued principal of over seven years be so disrespected and disposable unless there was motive to do so?”
Berman has not reported to work since she cleaned out her office on Jan. 8 and her lawyer, Steven Glink, is currently in negotiations with the school district’s attorneys about a severance agreement. Glink has said that if negotiations are not successful he could file an age discrimination complaint against the district on behalf of Berman.
Korslund complained that Westin did not help with the annual Hauser Food Drive this year and that Berman had to step in to pick up the slack.
“Ms. Westin, who helped in previous years, withdrew her support as well which left me stunned,” Korslund said. “It troubled me that the vice principal delegated her work to the principal. Leslie didn’t say one bad word about the situation and just worked to get the job done.”
Korslund seemed to put the blame for Berman’s sudden departure squarely on Sharma-Lewis.
“The culture of any organization begins at the top,” Korslund said.
Sharma-Lewis declined to comment on Korslund’s public statement.
Korslund acknowledged that Berman was not universally popular.
“She was liked by many, maybe not all, but she deserved better,” Korslund said.
Korslund said that her comments were not meant to imply she would not continue to work closely with school administrators in her capacity as PTO president.
“I continue to fully support our vice principal and superintendent for the trust the PTO has invested in me, and I have no personal animosity towards individuals, but rather the system that allows and tolerates it,” Korslund said. “Leslie deserves more than this. If anybody complains about not being able to find Leslie or did not see her as accessible [they] must not have tried very hard. I know that her first priority was accessibility.
“Something pushed her to leave the job she loved and I can only imagine her devastation waking the next day not to be with the staff and the kids. This is not my style to speak publicly, but as a parent and PTO president I have firsthand experience with something that went very wrong and could have been avoided.”