Big talent eyes big task--saving city schools Controversies often came with turf, Bernardo says

June 14, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

To listen to his friends and enemies, Charles M. Bernardo is either a brilliant innovator or a poisonous provocateur.

Whether either perception is true is a question that members of the Baltimore school board will have to answer before deciding whether to place the future of Baltimore's 108,000 schoolchildren in his hands.

But there is no question that he is controversial.

As superintendent of schools in Providence, R.I., in the early 1970s, he antagonized teachers by instituting classroom techniques that they said reduced their role to that of a robot.

After winning the superintendent's job in Montgomery County in 1975, he enraged white parents by closing 21 schools, implementing a mandatory busing program and requiring teachers to take a black history course.

Ousted from Montgomery County in 1979, he was named Utah state school superintendent only to have the offer withdrawn a week later after word of his past controversies -- through calls from disgruntled Marylanders -- raised concerns there.

Some view Dr. Bernardo's troubles as those of an innovative educator determined to bring racial balance among his top administrators, inject accountability into classrooms and ensure that the educational needs of minority children were not overlooked by white administrators.

"He was committed to overcome what people in the black community felt was an insensitivity of the system in meeting the needs of their children," said Roscoe R. Nix, a former Montgomery County school board member and former president of the county's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mr. Nix noted that at least two of Dr. Bernardo's hand-picked top aides have gone on to head other school systems, including Paul Vance, who is slated to take over the Montgomery County school system in July.

"He brought blacks into the very top positions, which had never been done before," Mr. Nix said.

But others remember him with bitterness.

"He was controversial here and he has been controversial wherever he has been," said Marcia B. Reback, president of the Providence Teachers Union in Rhode Island.

"He drove wedges between people that were extraordinary," Ms. Reback said, "and it is only in the last few years that we have been able to heal.

"Everyone was at war with everyone else."

Dr. Bernardo, 53, acknowledges that controversy has followed him, but he says that to some extent this is to be expected of anyone asked to resurrect troubled school systems.

"Education itself is a controversial subject," Mr. Bernardo said. "The school system legally has control over people's most precious assets: their children and their tax base. Of course there is going to be controversy."

Dr. Bernardo, who is regarded as brilliant even by detractors, said he believes that he has learned from some of his mistakes.

"My guess is that I will probably have no more than 10 or a dozen years of professional service remaining, and I would like to really make it work and really make a contribution," Mr. Bernardo said. "And perhaps my maturity will allow some people to draw closer to me than they have in the past. I think I'm a better listener, a better questioner, a better team player than I was in the past."

Baltimore's is not the only school system to which Mr. Bernardo has applied. He is a finalist for the same job in Memphis, Tenn., and says he has applied for other superintendent vacancies.

"I'm not seeking a job particularly," he said, "but I'm seeking a very special circumstance where there is a commitment to children and a vision of the future, and I think Baltimore has such a vision."

Born in Yonkers, N.Y., Dr. Bernardo is a 1959 graduate of New York University who earned a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1966, according to his resume.

Dr. Bernardo, who has not had a job with a school system since leaving the Montgomery County position, has worked as a real estate developer and consultant in Florida since the early 1980s.

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