Superintendent's credit card bills reveal taste for fine dining


by Adam Walser

Posted on November 3, 2009 at 11:37 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 1:22 AM

Are travel and fine dining necessary to bring more money and maintain the good image of JCPS?

When WHAS11 asked for Dr. Sheldon Berman's credit card statements, we discovered expensive meals at some of Louisville's finest establishments. Some education leaders believe now's not the time for those types of expenses.

Jefferson County Public Schools has nearly 100,000 students and 16,000 employees, so what’s a few hundred dollars here and there?

It's a lot, when you’re laying off dozens of janitors and cafeteria workers and cutting back on district programs, according to some local education leaders.

In this time of budget cutbacks, we thought it was only fair to take a look at Dr. Sheldon Berman’s credit card bills.

The expense reports look like those you might expect from the Chief Executive Officer of any large corporation here in Louisville.
After all, JCPS Superintendent Sheldon Berman’s budget is bigger than most at almost $1 billion.

But the difference is that these bills aren’t being paid by shareholder, they’re being picked up by you, the taxpayer.

We found bills for meals at some of Louisville’s most exclusive restaurants, including Lilly’s, Napa River Grill, Seviche and Le Relais.

Dr. Berman says the $200 or $300 dinners are few and far between.
"You would find very few of those on my credit card bill," said Berman. "If you found more than 4 or 5, I’d be surprised."

But we found twice that many bills from three or four star restaurants at a cost to the district of more than $1,400.

The delicacies Dr. Berman’s guests enjoyed included crusted sea bass, snapper and trout.

Berman says the expensive meals were mainly to reward outside review committees and to impress applicants for some of the school district’s top jobs.

"When you’re trying to bring somebody from a major district and you’re trying to show them that Louisville’s a great place to be, you want to share with them not the most expensive restaurants because these are not the most expensive in Louisville, but a nice place that would interest them and make them feel more at home," he said.

School board member Stephen Imhoff says he was not aware of all the meals.

"You just mentioned this to me. Sometimes, school board members are the last people to know things," Imhoff said.

"Because of the economic situation, we need to save as much money as we can," said Imhoff. "A hundred dollars here and a hundred dollars there is significant."

"It sends a horrible signal to people that are working hard everyday to make a living and paying taxes to see somebody do so much spending," said former Jefferson County Teachers Association Executive Director Steve Neal.

"So much money that could be better directed toward the education of children."

We also discovered a bill the district paid for a $300 a night hotel room.

Not Neal says teachers would like to see money spent, especially at a time with declining student test scores.

"They see textbooks. They see reading materials. They see extended school services, even if it’s only for a few kids," said Neal.

"If we’re in a hard budget time, I share in that pain of that time as well," said Berman.

Berman says he’s declined his allotted raise in recognition of the economic downturn, which was much more than all of the expenses at fancy restaurants on his credit card.

And your superintendent says cutting back on costs like travel and fine dining could damage JCPS’s image nationally.

"You want to be very careful to not lose the prominence that Jefferson County has achieved in the national arena," said Berman.

Prominence Berman says helps bring in millions of dollars in grant money…for what he considers a very small investment from local taxpayers.

Berman told us that he travels and spends far less now than he did as superintendent of the Hudson Public Schools system in Massachusetts, which is much smaller.