Baltimore school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey had his first heart-to-heart chat with the city's school principals yesterday, and he made it clear that the strained relationship between the leaders of schools and the leader of the school system is going to change.
"I can't do it without you," Dr. Amprey, who started the job Aug. 1, told principals of the 177 city schools who gathered in the auditorium of Coldstream Park Elementary yesterday. "You can make it without me . . . But I can't make it without you."
In a forceful, direct, hourlong talk that drew laughter and murmurs of assent from his audience, the new superintendent signaled a change from the days when the mayor of Baltimore met regularly with school principals because the superintendent would not. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke stopped meeting with principals when Dr. Amprey replaced former superintendent Richard C. Hunter.
Dr. Amprey told principals that it was up to them to take charge of their schools, that he would hold them accountable for progress without tying their hands -- and that he was there to help them.
"I have not heard that statement before from a superintendent," said Paula D. Cottrell, principal of George W. F. McMechen Junior-Senior school.
But though help may be on the way, money is not, Dr. Amprey told the principals.
"The cavalry's not coming to town, folks," he said. "But that doesn't mean we have to die. . . . Let's not hide behind money . . . that's the easy way. We've got to find a way to make success with these youngsters where we are."
The superintendent, who has already removed one layer of bureaucracy separating him from schools, said he wanted direct contact with principals.
"I want to hear directly from you, I really do," he said. "I'm cutting through all this stuff with the chain of command. I want to establish a relationship with each and every one of you. . . . It's got to happen for us to move forward in a positive way."
He said the school system needs to be more responsive to the public, promised to come up with a better plan for organizing school headquarters at North Avenue, and reverted to his theme of making North Avenue more user-friendly.
For whatever reason, he said, "some folks have gotten tired or recalcitrant or jaded, but they've become lackluster. We've got to change that because we're taking a black eye with that."
Dr. Amprey also touched on a sore point with many school administrators -- the degree of involvement on the part of advocates, foundations and community groups in Baltimore schools.
"I've never encountered either in a textbook or any job I've had so many experts on how schools should be run," he said. "But let me tell you, it's not going to go away . . . the thing is to learn to use it. We can no longer shut folks out and tell them to mind their business. As a matter of fact I believe that's one reason superintendents have had short tenures."
Afterward, principals asked questions and voiced complaints. At one point, in response to a request to allow principals more input into reports generated by committees they sit on, Dr. Amprey said: "I can't guarantee that."
That response reassured Ms. Cottrell, the principal of McMechen Junior-Senior school. "That's what makes him believable," she said. "He says, 'I can't guarantee that.' And that's important. We need to know those limits."
Sandra Wighton, principal of Western High School, said she's waiting to see Dr. Amprey's reorganization plan -- expected to take effect next month. But yesterday's meeting, she said, was "a refreshing step in the right direction."