Sherman Middle School exterior

Sherman Middle School

A stinging rebuke of Madison's Sherman Middle School and its principal by a departing teacher drew a sharp response from Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham Wednesday while calling attention to the school's increasing number of vacant positions, the most among district middle schools.

In a blog post published Monday, Karen Vieth, a 16-year veteran of the Madison school district, accused Sherman Principal Kristin Foreman of being asleep at the wheel during implementation of the district’s Behavior Education Plan, designed to cut down on expulsions and suspensions and reduce racial disparities in disciplinary matters. She attributed problems under Foreman’s leadership to rampant turnover that left several teaching jobs vacant during the school year.

She characterized Foreman’s leadership as “indifferent,” leading to an “unpredictable and chaotic” environment at the school that has resulted in an exodus of staff.

“It is no wonder that the Sherman Middle School climate has declined since she took over as principal three years ago — despite staff efforts to hold things together,” Veith wrote. “Nobody seemed to be steering the ship.”

Vieth indicated on Facebook Wednesday that she is moving on to Epic Systems in Verona where she will work in quality assurance.

According to the school district, 17 teachers — 7 percent of all vacancies in the district— have left during the past school year, more than at other middle schools in the district.

“This is a mixture of retirements, new jobs within the district and shifts in the instructional model at the school that has created vacancies,” said district spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson in an email.

Last year, Sherman had 13 vacancies, and two years ago there were seven. 

The school with the second-largest number of teacher vacancies this past year was Whitehorse Middle School, which saw 10, or 5 percent, of the teaching staff leave. Jefferson and Cherokee middle schools each saw nine teachers leave.

Of 16 vacant positions at Sherman, eight have been filled.

The number of vacancies has alarmed some parents. A May 30 letter signed by 26 parents called the vacancies “incredibly worrisome” and urged Foreman and Tremayne Clardy, the district’s deputy chief for middle schools, to conduct exit interviews to learn why teachers left.

Two days later, Foreman issued a letter to parents to assure them that she “will be working diligently this summer until all positions are filled.” In it, she said staff vacancies totaled 21, including the 17 teachers and other positions such as clerical workers and nursing staff.

“I understand that these are big changes for our families and our children and we are here to partner and support you in any way necessary through these transitions,” she wrote.

Vieth's post has been widely circulated on social media and by Wednesday afternoon it had logged more than 6,000 likes and was shared more than 100 times on Facebook.

Madison school board member TJ Mertz said complaints about the school have poured in since the blog was posted.

“In some ways a floodgate kind of opened up,” he said.

Mertz said he couldn’t comment directly on the blog, calling it a “sensitive personnel issue.”

But he said the concerns it raised resonated with parents.

“I think some of the communication we’ve received from parents is equally concerning, and very detailed,” he said.

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and school board officers issued a response to the blog.

“We have grave concerns regarding the type of personal, public shaming of a principal, in this case a principal of color,” the statement says.

It goes on the criticize the “type and tenor of dialogue” in the blog.

“While we fully embrace the feedback, it is important that our words and actions align with our core values of belonging, inclusion and racial equity,” the letter says.

Mertz said he was not invited to sign the letter. And if he had been, “I would not have signed the letter.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.