New Baltimore County School Chief: Adore Him or Despise Him

MARTHA SEVETSON

July 05, 1992|By MARTHA SEVETSON

Wichita, Kans. -- When you meet Stuart Berger, who took office as Baltimore County school superintendent Wednesday, you'll understand right away why some people adore him and others despise him.

He is a man without pretense, who won't bother with being coiffed or coached. If you like frankness, you'll probably like him. If you prefer suave and sophisticated, you'll be taken aback.

"Stuart Berger has always been Stuart Berger because Stuart Berger can't help it," he said in a recent interview, breaking into his familiar toothy grin.

He is a man who believes very firmly that he knows what's best for schoolchildren, and he'll fight for it, even if it's not popular. If you agree with his vision, he'll be your hero. If you disagree, he'll be your nemesis.

"With him, it's, 'My way or no way,' " said Barbara Travis, president of the Wichita affiliate of the National Education Association.

He is, finally, an impatient man. Dr. Berger doesn't take the time to spell out details or even finish sentences; he won't wait for everyone to rally around his ideas. Somewhere in his mind, a clock is constantly ticking, pushing him faster and faster ahead, leaving others in his wake.

If you find that sort of thing stimulating, you'll enjoy his company. If not, you'll wonder where this eccentric man came from and how he got this far.

"He's such a random person," said Wichita Board of Education member Carol Rupe. "He thinks so randomly. He acts so randomly, too."

Dr. Berger's last stop was in Wichita, where he spent five years as superintendent over a district of 48,000 students. Before that, he was superintendent in Frederick County, Md. In addition to his training in education, which includes a doctorate in administration from Kent State University in Ohio, Dr. Berger has a law degree from the University of Maryland.

Frequently, he adopts an incisive, prosecutorial style in his dealings as superintendent. Dr. Berger likes to set people on edge, challenge them, force them to question their own assumptions. He says things that are politically unwise.

In his first months in Wichita, back in 1987, Dr. Berger visited several high schools, including Wichita Southeast. That school, he said, like others in Wichita, was run for adults, not for kids. He told the teachers, "If you don't believe all children can learn, don't show up on Monday."

That comment, and others like it, made teachers angry. It made them think he considered them incompetent. It started a backlash against him.

"It was more the attitude when he came out to the school: 'This is what we're going to do, and stay out of my way,' " said Greg Jones, president of the Wichita Federation of Teachers.

D. J. Spaeth, a teacher at Wichita North High, said many of her colleagues distrusted Dr. Berger, seeing him as a threat to their security, a disruption to their comfortable, supportive environment.

Dr. Berger viewed his controversial remarks as one step toward shaking up a deeply entrenched system, a system that didn't focus enough on the needs of children. The backlash was inevitable, he said. His goal was to change the culture, to put the onus for student performance on the teachers.

"Changing people's culture around them does make them very paranoid," he said, matter-of-factly.

He said the system in Baltimore County is different, and he won't shake things up as much. But there will be "unhappy campers," he said.

Dr. Berger's prosecutorial style also surfaces in his one-on-one meetings with administrators, teachers and citizens. Unlike other administrators, who file away complaints and suggestions with a smile, Dr. Berger argues back.

That doesn't apply to parents or citizens who have a practical problem, such as trying to get their child into a particular program, he said. Then, he will pull what strings he can to solve the problem.

But anyone who wants to argue a point should be ready to defend his or her position, he said. "You come in here and want to tell me what I'm doing wrong, get ready," he said. "You're darn right I'm not going to say, 'Thank you for sharing.' "

Darrel Thorp, a former Wichita district employee, who was elected to the school board and then recalled, said Dr. Berger's style was intimidating to the people of Wichita. Dr. Berger doesn't listen to criticism, Mr. Thorp said.

Dr. Berger said he simply doesn't listen to such "idiocy." Lots of his subordinates disagreed with him, he said, and he was persuaded to change his point of view.

Overall, Dr. Berger's management style could best be compared to Don Quixote, tilting at the windmill. He fights persistently for what he believes. He ignores or railroads his opposition.

He doesn't spend time building broad-based community coalitions. Instead, he focuses his energies on choosing employees who will carry out his ideas and on persuading his bosses -- the school board -- to let him. Dr. Berger says he is a hands-off administrator who leaves details to his subordinates.

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