Even before taking over as Baltimore County school chief, Stuart D. Berger began living up to his reputation as a man who likes to grab the status quo by the shoulders and give it a good shake.
During a get-acquainted lunch with the County Council in early June, Dr. Berger criticized the school system for its student expulsion policy and its racial imbalances. Days later, in keeping with his goal of decentralizing school operations, he announced that nearly 20 administrators will be put to work "on site" as principals, assistant principals and teachers.
The 47-year-old Ohio native, who officially succeeds Robert Y. Dubel today, was hired by the county school board expressly to be a catalyst for change. Maybe the board thought he would wait until July, but the new superintendent seemed eager to implement his activist philosophy.
This transition comes at a pivotal period in the county's history. Bob Dubel, the venerable "Dr. Bob" who ran the system for 16 years, took the job when the county was much more a sleepy suburb. While much respected, he was still criticized in some quarters for being slow to acknowledge the subdivision's urbanization -- specifically the influx of minorities and its effects on the county and the school system. Dr. Berger is said to be sensitive to the special needs and problems of less advantaged youth, coming from the 43,000-student Wichita, Kans., system, where some 30 percent of the students are from families below the federal poverty line and 20 percent of the students are black. In Baltimore County's 90,000-student, 147-school system, those needs and problems are increasingly evident. Dr. Berger has acknowledged that responding to the system's shifting demographics will initially pose his greatest challenge.
"Sensitive," however, is hardly the word many people would use to describe Dr. Berger's dealings with teachers, school officials and the media in Wichita and Frederick County, where he was school chief from 1981 to 1987. (Prior to his Frederick appointment, he ran the North Olmsted, Ohio schools for three years.) His relations with teachers at each of his stops have usually been strained. In Frederick, he sued a newspaper over a tame six-paragraph item, and he got into such a blow-up with the school board over his reforms that he took a two-week leave to let tempers cool.
According to a Berger supporter in Wichita, the new superintendent has learned from his past battles that he should be diplomatic when instituting change. Regardless of that approach, big changes in the county's school system seem certain. Dr. Berger's tenure promises to be controversial, a cause of much teeth-gnashing in teacher lounges and a copious source of interesting news copy. But whether the Berger era will ultimately be judged a success depends on one thing -- how much Baltimore County school kids benefit.