Beeman thrives on challenge

Former colleagues praise new School District 2 superintendent
2010-05-04T00:15:00Z Beeman thrives on challengeROB ROGERS Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
May 04, 2010 12:15 am  • 

Many of Keith Beeman’s past colleagues say he’s often at his best when a school district is facing its worst.

Beeman is Billings School District 2’s pick for new superintendent and will take over here this summer.

Before he was hired as human resources director at the Chino Valley Unified School District in 2006, Beeman helped turn around a bankrupt and debt-addled Compton Unified School District in 2001 and then did the same for a school district in Oakland two years later.

“It was a mighty struggle,” Beeman said.

Jesse Gonzales, the superintendent brought in by the state to turn around the Compton district, said Beeman ended up becoming one of his most trusted colleagues.

“He’s a no-nonsense guy,” Gonzales said.

In Compton, more than three-quarters of the teachers in the 33,000 student-district did not have state certification to teach — they were at the district on waivers — and the district owed millions of dollars to the state after taking loans when it went bankrupt.

Beeman said the district had an “air of melancholy” when the state stepped in. There was a kind of “why try?” attitude that just fed on itself, he said.

As human resources director, Beeman helped the teachers who stayed get their certifications and then hired competent, certified teachers and started rebuilding the district from the ground up.

“It was probably the most difficult thing he had to do,” Gonzales said.

After that, Beeman had to hire a new finance director for the district, no easy task considering Compton’s financial troubles, Gonzales said.

“He’s got great expertise in finance,” he said.

In fact, Beeman was so competent with a budget, Gonzales said he wanted Beeman to take the finance director job but decided he needed Beeman more in human resources.  

“I made him my deputy,” Gonzales said. “I needed someone I could trust.”

When the Oakland Unified School District collapsed a few years later, the state again hired Beeman to take over the human resources department there.

Beeman cautioned about making too much of Compton’s turnaround.

“Compton to this day still struggles,” he said.

But the improvement it has seen since 2001 has been great and the experience gave him skills to undertake difficult assignments once he got to Chino.

“They have to do some unfortunate tasks,” Sylvia Orozco, a trustee on the Chino Valley Unified school board, said of human resources directors.

For Beeman, many of those tasks came last year. The administration created a district budget reduction plan after California’s budget went into a tailspin. The plan called for closing three elementary schools in poor neighborhoods.

In a letter to the district last year, signed by 2,000 district parents and community members, the administration was accused of ignoring California’s education code and purposely targeting schools with poor students.

“The communities served by these schools have been unable to rally the resources needed to resist as quickly and effectively as other, wealthier schools in the Chino Valley,” the letter stated.

The three schools were closed in June.

Later in the school year, the district decided to lay off more than 100 teachers.  

Both moves were deeply unpopular and eventually led to Superintendent Edmond Heatley’s voluntary departure from the district.

“There was a lot of negativity associated with (Heatley),” Orozco said.

His resignation was followed by two other administrators from the district, leaving Beeman as the last holdout from Heatley’s cabinet.

“It was almost like a purge,” said Wayne Joseph, Chino Valley’s current superintendent. “(Beeman) was like the last of the Mohicans.”

Joseph, who described Beeman as an integral part of his own administration, said Beeman understood he was too linked to the old guard to move forward in Chino.

Beeman said his decision to leave was more of a professional choice. He believed he was ready to take on the role of superintendent and began this year looking for a place to make that move.

In March, a month after he was named one of six finalists for the Billings School District 2 superintendent job, Beeman announced his own resignation from the Chino district to take effect at the end of the school year. He resigned to give Chino time to find a replacement and because he was confident he’d find a new leadership opportunity elsewhere, he said.

Joseph likes Beeman and said he’ll miss what he brings to his administration.

“He’s a real problem-solver,” Joseph said. “He was the one who always saw the angle no one else saw.”

Orozco agreed.

“I have the utmost respect for Keith Beeman,” she said. “He’s very professional, very knowledgeable.”

Many of Beeman’s past colleagues described him as a “tough negotiator.” Under California state law, superintendents have the authority to negotiate employee contracts with their unions. As human resources director in Chino, it was Beeman who undertook those negotiations.

“He’s very business-oriented,” said Justine Cunningham, president of Chino’s teachers union.

Beeman was so adept at contract talks, unions often asked him to write the contract language to ensure it was done correctly, Joseph said.

It’s not clear how involved Beeman will be in contract negotiations with the SD2 unions. In Montana, school boards are the chief negotiators of employee contracts. The district and its employees are scheduled to enter contract negotiations next year.

“Our hopes and expectations would be that he’s an open-minded individual that would listen to all sides of an issue,” said Jeff Greenfield, president of the Billing Education Association, SD2’s teachers union.

Greenfield said he’s fielded some calls from staff members curious about the new superintendent, but said for the most part teachers aren’t talking about it.

With the end of the school year rapidly approaching, “they’re more concerned about what’s going on in the classroom,” he said.

Beeman is aware people will be watching his first steps as he takes over this summer. He doesn’t believe in change just for the sake of change, he said. He’ll be eager to communicate with district staff members to better understand what they believe are the challenges facing the district.

“When I come to Billings, what I want to do is be a fantastic listener,” he said.

Gonzales, Beeman’s old boss from Compton and now retired, was keen to hear the news of Beeman’s new job. He said he’s happy Beeman will be making the jump from associate superintendent to superintendent.

“I’m glad that Billings is willing to give him the opportunity,” he said.

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or at 406-657-1231.

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