Principal at center of a war Vindictiveness, nepotism alleged at General Wolfe

January 03, 1993|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Staff Writer

No one would expect to find a civil war at a placid little elementary school in Southeast Baltimore.

But just that kind of battle -- a revolt by some staff members against the principal -- has been escalating for more than a year at General Wolfe Elementary, and now has erupted into public view.

The infighting has kindled these allegations against the principal, Guinevere R. Berry:

* She penalized teachers who spoke out about problems at the school or seemed disloyal.

* She practiced nepotism by hiring her own daughter, in violation of city school policy.

* She made poor decisions about a disabled girl and a boy with asthma.

At least five of the 16 teachers at the public school have taken their complaints about the principal to the school system's high command and to the Baltimore Teachers Union.

A group of 27 parents, worried that their children are caught in a cross-fire of dissension, have petitioned the city school superintendent for help in resolving the conflict.

L Meanwhile, city school headquarters takes the position that:

* Dr. Berry, a strong administrator, is doing a good job and has improved pupil attendance and test scores.

* Many faculty members support her, and she never would downgrade a teacher without good reason.

* A few malcontents have caused the discord.

The school, at 245 S. Wolfe St., is one of Baltimore's smallest, with 261 pupils.

Most of the children come from low-income households in the tiny row homes that surround the drab, two-story brick building.

The dissident teachers claim that General Wolfe has been run harshly; they say that any staff member considered disloyal or resistant faces retaliation by Dr. Berry.

The dissidents also say that Dr. Berry hired her daughter as a computer aide, paid with federal funds, and had the young woman keep tabs on the work of some teachers.

Critics of the principal also cite two alleged incidents involving pupils at the school.

Last spring, a 9-year-old girl in a wheelchair was ordered left in the building, alone, during a fire drill. And this fall, a 10-year-old boy with asthma began to feel ill and did not receive immediate attention, his parents say.

Another complaint against the principal involves medical supplies.

A health aide says she received just one pair of sterile rubber gloves and was told to wash and re-use them, even though the gloves are used to help handicapped children relieve themselves.

Reports reach parents

This fall, parents began to get wind of growing dissension at the school.

One result was the petition sent to School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey last month asking him for "immediate help" in improving teacher morale at General Wolfe.

"Please, we are begging," the petition said.

Apparently fearing retaliation, the parents wrote, "We still have children in the school, so if possible please keep our names confidential."

Dr. Berry declined comment on any of the alleged improprieties at her school. "I don't care to discuss these matters," she told a reporter.

Gary Thrift, an assistant superintendent and Dr. Berry's boss, blames the strife on a "handful" of disgruntled staff members who dislike the principal's emphasis on making teachers accountable.

Dr. Berry is handling the situation well, and the learning environment has not been compromised, Dr. Thrift says.

"The only problems [at General Wolfe] are at the adult level, between adults," he says. "There is no evidence that it is having a detrimental effect on classroom instruction."

Some staff members disagree.

"When the teachers are unhappy, it has to affect the children," says Ethel Davis, a teachers aide. "I'd say at least half the teachers are unhappy."

According to officials of the Baltimore Teachers Union, at least five teachers and two aides -- not all of them dissidents -- are expected to request transfers from General Wolfe.

Maria Eason, a fourth-grade teacher, wants to leave.

"I've enjoyed teaching there, but I hope to be placed in another school [for the next school year] because of what's going on," says Mrs. Eason. "It's unfortunate that some of these things have happened."

A number of teachers say the friction is wearing them down.

"I've already taken three days off for stress," says Phyllis Devlin, a pre-kindergarten teacher. "Do you think it's fun going into that school thinking, 'What . . . is going to break loose today?'

"A lot of us are staying out more than we ever did."

This worries parents like Debbie Gullett, whose 7-year-old son attends General Wolfe. "I'm concerned. The teachers who want to leave are some of the best in the school," says Ms. Gullett. "But if they aren't happy, or if they don't show up for class, it's harmful on the kids.

"My son's teacher missed two days the other week. Every time there's a substitute teacher, the children are missing out."

Most of the parents interviewed requested anonymity, saying they feared recriminations.

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