Stuart D. Berger's press clippings weren't lying. The man i every bit as blunt as he was reputed to be when he took over as Baltimore County school superintendent two-and-a-half months ago.
Bursting with ideas, Dr. Berger often seems to lack the mental filter -- or the trepidation -- that causes most of us to keep certain thoughts from passing our lips. This candor is a key reason many people find him so refreshingly different from the average public official. It helps that he spikes his servings of truth with shots of wry humor.
There are also people who warn that Dr. Berger's plain-spoken ways could put him in hot water; he has admitted he shares that concern.
Well, the Berger Quote Patrol didn't have to wait long for a remark that probably shouldn't have gotten away. On the opening day of school, the superintendent told a reporter that a cost-of-living raise for county teachers is high on his list of priorities, if the county budget will allow it.
Nothing incendiary there, right? Besides, it could be argued that the remark came in response to a question posed in a school corridor and therefore doesn't carry the weight of a comment offered at a press conference or at a school board meeting.
Still, the quote was made on the record to a reporter and has since been digested by teachers who were furloughed four days last year and are grimly staring at a second straight year without a cost-of-living pay boost.
Robert Dubel, Dr. Berger's predecessor, knows what can happen when county teachers get their hopes up and then are disappointed. Early this year, when County Executive Roger B. Hayden ordered that county employees be furloughed five days, Dr. Dubel wanted to spare teachers from taking time off without pay. But eventually he gave in to fiscal reality and scheduled furloughs with little teacher input. The teachers' union reacted with sick-outs and a work-to-rule job action.
A shortfall in state income led to drastic reductions in this year's Baltimore County budget, and with a $500 million state deficit now looming, the county will be forced to make even more painful cuts soon. Even though the teachers deserve raises (as Dr. Berger notes), no county employees should be banking on cost-of-living pay increases in such a dreary economic climate.
The superintendent is well aware of that. By suggesting otherwise, he may have raised teachers' expectations in a way ** that could lead to unpleasant encounters down the road.