Controversy follows new superintendent

October 16, 1997


Staff Writer

Herman Bartlett Jr. was a lightning rod for criticism at his last job in Montgomery County, Va., where school board members voted against renewing his contract when it expired in June.

Bartlett's style was described as brash and intimidating in newspaper stories and telephone interviews with officials at the 9,000-student school district southwest of Roanoke, Va.

Even his supporters said Bartlett, who will take over as acting superintendent in Washington County Nov. 1, was at times "too direct."


But people also praised him for making positive changes to the school district including building new schools, raising test scores and expanding computer technology in the schools.

"He made tough decisions. That's why you hire superintendents - to make tough decisions," said Roy Vickers, president of the Montgomery County School Board that hired Bartlett in 1993.

Bartlett himself said change, even for the better, is never easy.

But critics said it wasn't the changes they objected to. It was the way Bartlett made them.

"He's very much a top-down, I'll-tell-you-what-to-do, Hitler-type, commander-in-chief," said Karen Trear, president of the Montgomery County Teachers Association.

Complaints about Bartlett began almost from the time he hung up his degrees from Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia.

School employees graded him a "D+" during his first year, according to newspaper stories from the Roanoke Times.

In September 1994, a petition signed by 300 county citizens urged the school board to delay the renewal of his contract because of concerns about his performance, a newspaper story said.

Trear, the harshest Bartlett critic, said teachers there are relieved he has been replaced by someone "who puts the classroom and the student first and foremost in every decision he makes."

Ironically, Bartlett also plans to "stay focused on what's good for kids," he said Wednesday at a press conference in Hagerstown.

Bartlett, 53, showed a softer tone at the press conference, talking about the need to praise and uplift teachers for the important work they do.

But he also said he has high expectations for teachers, students and the community.

"I will give 110 percent and I expect the same from you. I know that's a tough statement, but that's a reality in this business," he said.

In response to criticism, Bartlett said his record speaks for itself.

"I guess what I focus on, since this job is very political, is the product. I feel very positive about that," Bartlett said after the conference. "I'm just sorry that's one of those angles I couldn't correct."

Washington County Board of Education President B. Marie Byers said board members heard the criticism of Bartlett's style when they talked business leaders, school board members and teachers from the community.

But Byers believes Bartlett was a victim of politics as the Montgomery County school board moved to an elected board from one appointed by the county government.

Montgomery County also has a reputation as a revolving door for superintendents, with seven in the past 20 years, according to the Roanoke Times.

A consultant hired by the Washington County school board checked 14 of Bartlett's references, Byers said.

Byers said Bartlett will be a welcome change from former Superintendent Wayne F. Gersen, who she described as a "smoke and mirrors superintendent."

Bartlett, during his four years in Montgomery County, made strides in several areas identified as priorities in Washington County.

Bartlett increased the curriculum requirements at a faster pace than mandated by the state of Virginia, Vickers said.

A main goal in Washington County is fixing shortcomings identified in the curriculum in a September audit, Byers said.

The audit said schools are weak in technology. Bartlett helped Montgomery County and Virginia Tech obtain a $1.1 million technology grant from the National Science Foundation.

Bartlett also trained teachers in Montgomery County how to use computers, Vickers said.

"The one thing he did wrong was he tried to make changes too fast. In general, people resist change," Vickers said.

Bartlett isn't afraid to tell someone when they are not doing a good job, Vickers said.

"That's the kind of guy he was, or is. If he thinks something is right, he'll work for it," Vickers said.

One of Bartlett's strengths is financial planning, said David Moore, a Montgomery County School Board member.

"Some people said he was too direct. But, of course, I didn't see that. I think the county, in retrospect, will miss him," Moore said.

Bartlett, a native of Grayson County, Va., was superintendent for the City of Colonial Heights (Va.) Public Schools from 1985 to 1993.

He was superintendent of Craig County Public Schools in New Castle, Va., from 1981 to 1985.

He earned his doctorate, master's and bachelor's degrees from Virginia Tech. He holds an educational specialist degree from the University of Virginia.

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