Stuart Berger: Ambushed by snow

December 24, 1992

Baltimore County School Superintendent Stuart Berge discovered a horrifying fact of local life two weeks ago: It snows here.

Sure, it snows in areas where Dr. Berger used to work -- Western Maryland, Kansas, Ohio. But when snow falls in those places, the locals don't go out of their minds in a bread- and toilet-paper-buying panic, as the brave souls around here tend to do.

No doubt that snow anxiety partly accounted for the flurry of anti-Berger calls to radio talk shows from parents of Baltimore County school children. They fumed that the superintendent, in ordering his first snow cancellation, opted to close the elementary schools after many parents had already packed their kids off to class and headed to work.

Yet it's also a safe bet that the most peeved parents used the snow confusion to vent their frustrations with the new superintendent, who in his first 5 1/2 months on the job has moved as quickly and brusquely to change the school system as his advance billing suggested he would.

Since July, Dr. Berger and the school board have discussed or implemented such innovations as an all-day kindergarten, an arts high school, new high school graduation requirements, a broadening of the gifted and talented program and a revamped grading system for elementary students. They also have offered the county teachers union a contract proposal that has been called strikingly radical.

These are fine ideas, at least worth examining. But has it all been too much too soon? It isn't if you keep in mind that Dr. Berger was hired to act fast and dramatically, and that his school system must improve results without much more money.

Itching to turn philosophy into reality and preferring not to trouble himself with details, Dr. Berger tends to place little stock in the kind of public relations skills that might help his programs win popularity. In the short run, his curt style could keep even his best ideas from gaining wide acceptance. And in the long run, middle-class parents could become so alienated that they desert the school system or the county itself.

Heaven knows some middle-class parents are alarmists (and not just about snow). Generally, though, they're among the staunchest and ablest advocates for public education. While Stuart Berger deserves immense credit for being a champion of underdogs, he should take care not to drive away the middle class. The success of his programs -- and of the school system -- could be at stake.

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