Kansan brings stormy past to schools post Baltimore Co. braces for new superintendent

February 14, 1992|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Staff Writer

Baltimore County educators accustomed to the conservatism and diplomacy that Robert Y. Dubel displayed in his 16 years as their school superintendent will be in for a shock when Stuart D. Berger arrives, his former colleagues say.

"My advice to educators in Baltimore County is this: Hold on! You're going to be on a roller coaster. Everyone from custodians to the assistant superintendent is going to know there's a new guy in town," said Jack Patterson, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association. Mr. Berger served as Frederick County school superintendent from 1981 to 1987.

He described Dr. Berger's leadership style as "intimidating," "iron-fisted" and "extremely demanding."

Dr. Berger, the 47-year-old superintendent of the Wichita, Kan., school system, was named yesterday to succeed Dr. Dubel July 1.

"His first name is 'change,' " Mr. Patterson said of Dr. Berger. "He'll shake things up, transfer people involuntarily, and do it with an attitude that says, 'If you don't like it, you can leave.' "

State Sen. Janice Piccinini, D-Baltimore County, former president of both the county and the state teachers' associations, said she considered Dr. Berger "a disaster. He was driven out of Frederick County and he was driven out of Wichita," she said. "Baltimore County fell from top to bottom in one fell swoop."

Ms. Piccinini predicted that county teachers will be lining up to take early retirement rather than work for him. When she was president of the state teachers' association, "We told non-tenured teachers not to go to Frederick."

Bob Douglas, who struck up a friendship with Dr. Berger when both men were taking night classes at the University of Maryland Law School during the mid-1980s, had a different view. Mr. Douglas, now a trial lawyer, praised his friend for his enthusiasm and "incredible energy."

Offering an example of that energy, Mr. Douglas recalled how Mr. Berger made the two-hour round trip from Frederick to Baltimore three nights a week for four years, to attend law classes that lasted four hours. And each night of classes followed a full day's work at the Frederick County education office.

Still, Mr. Douglas acknowledged that some people will be threatened by Dr. Berger's aggressive demeanor.

In 1987, Dr. Berger sued the Frederick News-Post for what he claimed was a libelous story. News-Post Managing Editor Mike Powell said the story was "a six-paragraph item about some routine administrative matter. He sued us for libel, we filed our response, and the case was immediately thrown out of court. I never knew why he went to all that trouble over such an unimportant story." Despite the suit against the paper, Mr. Powell said, "I thought [Mr. Berger] was very good at his job, and I still do. He's an energizer, the kind of person you bring in to change things around . . . He's not the type to sit back and be a caretaker."

Ron Young, the mayor of Frederick from 1974 to 1990, criticized Dr. Berger for being "very weak in public relations," adding, "I didn't think he was good for the [Frederick County] school system. He liked to shake up the community and didn't care how much he did it."

Mr. Young, who now works for the state government, recounts the time a few years ago when he attended a National League of Cities conference. He says he ran into some people from Wichita and said, "Oh, you have our old school superintendent."

"Yes," the Wichita people replied. "And do you want him back?"

That question probably would get a "yes" from Marge Warner, an employee in the treasurer's office of the North Olmsted, Ohio, school district, which Dr. Berger ran from 1978 to 1981. Ms. Warner said she regarded her ex-boss as "the greatest guy, a brilliant man, so straightforward."

She adds, "I know [Mr. Berger] has a bad reputation among some people, but maybe those are people who just don't like change. There are a lot of people like that who don't want their apple carts upset, but sometimes that's what's needed. And listen, he's the guy who can do it too."

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