Baltimore County schools Superintendent Stuart Berger yesterday defended the rapid changes he has made in his first year, comparing the job to fixing a leaky roof before it causes major damage.
"We need to make changes to this respected school system before it begins to deteriorate," he said. "We all know it is a poor decision to wait until the building is in jeopardy. We can compare the school system to [that] building."
Dr. Berger and school board President Rosalie Hellman both spoke yesterday at a news conference they had called to "review the accomplishments" of the school year, including the establishment of magnet schools, the start of a school breakfast program, all-day kindergarten and alternative schools for disruptive students.
With criticism from teachers and parents mounting, they also faced -- and denied -- rumors that the board is seeking Dr. Berger's resignation and that the county grand jury had been preparing to indict him.
"I want to put to rest, once and for all, the persistent rumors that intimate that the Board of Education does not support Stuart Berger," Mrs. Hellman said in a prepared statement. "On the contrary, the board unanimously supports Dr. Berger and his decisions this year."
Last week WBAL radio reported the superintendent's impending resignation, but Dr. Berger and board members adamantly denied it.
In addressing the indictment rumor, Dr. Berger said he had appeared before the county grand jury when it was looking into drug abuse in the schools last fall. "It was not looking into anything which had to do with me or my personal or professional life," he said. "For any member of the grand jury or others to imply otherwise is unconscionable."
The grand jury subsequently issued a report noting that Dr. Berger and other school administrators had appeared before it.
In assessing the superintendent's first year, Mrs. Hellman and Dr. Berger said they were following the recommendations laid out in a 1989 document "Great Expectations for 2000: Shaping the Vision," which had been put together under the previous superintendent, Robert Y. Dubel.
"This report recommends magnet schools, full-day kindergarten, site-based management, alternatives to the traditional report card and a streamlined central office," Mrs. Hellman noted. Dr. Berger has started all of these programs since replacing Dr. Dubel, who retired last June after 16 years as superintendent.
Withing a few weeks of his arrival, in fact, Dr. Berger set up full-day kindergartens in about one-third of the county's elementary schools, especially where the demographics and populations indicated children would benefit from additional early education.
The changes have continued, though many will not come to fruition until next school year. Among those that Dr. Berger cited are:
* Increasing choices for students through "magnet programs" designed to attract students of similar interests and abilities from around the county. There will be seven high school programs next year and at least three more programs -- one in an elementary school -- in 1994-95.
* The start of a school breakfast program this year, with expansion into all schools next year.
* Establishing an alternative middle school for students with behavior problems and expanding that program to two middle and two high schools next year.
* Approving two pilot programs as part of the contract with the county teachers' association to give teachers more freedom in their work schedules and allow them to be treated more professionally.
Although Dr. Berger said the school system and the Teachers Association of Baltimore County (TABCO) cooperated on these experimental programs, he pointed a finger at the union as one of the groups that he said have "fomented unrest and promoted dissatisfaction among parents, the general community and the staff."
"I do believe there is a concerted effort to stop us from implementing what we are trying to implement," a somewhat testy Dr. Berger told reporters on his way out. "Certainly, some people have a vested interest in seeing us not do it."
In his prepared statement, Dr. Berger said that these critics were using the media to "interrupt our task. We will continue, however, on the path which will provide education for a diversified student body. We will not waste time from our important task to deny unsubstantiated rumors," he declared.
The news conference, originally scheduled for Friday morning, was rescheduled so that the school school system would not be perceived as responding to a demonstration of disgruntled teachers and parents planned before tonight's school board meeting.
TABCO is to hold an all-member meeting this afternoon at Loyola College so members can vote on part of next year's contract and air grievances about transfer and hiring practices. "This is the first all-member meeting since some time in 1976," said TABCO President Ed Veit. "Usually, we have them when we consider this a time of crisis. The crisis is the direction, or even the competence, of education [in the county]. This year a lot of us feel very insecure."
Mr. Veit said some TABCO members will go from the union meeting to the board meeting, where they will be joined by parents unhappy with new policies.