Berta starts Valparaiso school year with high visibility
By Amy Lavalley Post-Tribune correspondent August 25, 2012 8:24PM
Community schools interim superintendant Mike Berta introduces himself to a class of fifth graders during a visit to Northview Elementary in Valparaiso Wednesday Aug. 22, 2012. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 27, 2012 11:03AM
VALPARAISO — Mike Berta knows the drill well. It’s one he followed the many years he served as superintendent at the Portage Township schools.
As the school year gets under way, he visits each building. This year, though, Berta isn’t in Portage, since he retired there at the end of last school year. This year, he made his rounds in the Valparaiso schools, where he has been hired to serve as interim superintendent.
Last week, he hit a few of the schools as teachers and principals geared up for the start of school. Wednesday, the first day of school for Valparaiso students, he stopped by Parkview Elementary School, which had a power outage as school began; Cooks Corners Elementary School; and Northview Elementary School.
“It’s primarily to make sure, if the building administrators have any questions, I’m available,” he said, standing in the hallway of Northview with the principal, Loren Hershberger.
He also wants the school district staff to know the central office is concerned about their task of educating students, and that he’s thankful for the amount of work teachers do before their students walk through the door, including mining test scores, grades and other data so they can best meet their students’ educational needs.
Berta, who has a long history with the Portage schools as well as the Merrillville schools, walked into a challenging time for Valparaiso. The last superintendent, Andrew Melin, left after two years for another job downstate. The central office administrators have quit in recent months, and the school district, like others across the state, faces tough financial times.
He took the job anyway, and already has hired a chief financial officer, Sharon Qualkenbush, whom he worked with in Portage, and one assistant superintendent, Jim Doane, the former principal at Valparaiso High School. He is conducting interviews for another assistant superintendent.
“I didn’t labor over this, but there was a question I had to answer for myself before I responded to the School Board” about the job, Berta said. “The primary discussions were about the academic status of the school corporation. There’s no question that Valparaiso schools are academically sound. The kids here get a quality education.”
While he built up the academics during his years in Portage — “a big task,” Berta said — the main issues in Valparaiso were financial constraints, mistrust by the public and a lack of alignment on how the district should proceed.
He stepped away from retirement, after a vacation to Hawaii and a now-uncompleted list of household projects, “because fundamentally, it’s a strong district and I believe I can be part of the solution.”
Berta has a reputation in the region as a problem solver who builds relationships, Hershberger said.
“In education, it’s hard to go wrong with someone of that caliber,” he said.