Stuart Berger: Pioneer or Plague?

ANDREW RATNER

June 19, 1993|By ANDREW RATNER

A parent from Pikesville wrote us to say that Baltimore County's year-old school superintendent, Stuart Berger, is the best thing to happen to the community and that he hopes to see him here for many, many years.

Another letter writer, who doesn't even live in Baltimore County, declared him a ''plague.''

A high school principal wrote that he had never seen a superintendent invest more time at community meetings, and wondered if his ''honesty'' unnerves the citizenry.

A teacher in the system wrote us that he's ''Hitlerian.''

A county school planner, who lost his company car and his department in a Berger shuffle, nevertheless says, ''I unequivocally love this guy . . . because 'That's the way it's been done' is not an acceptable answer for Stuart Berger.''

A state senator and ex-teachers union leader called him a ''disaster'' who'd been run out of prior jobs.

You get the sense folks have differences of opinion about this guy?

Dr. Berger is to education what raw oysters are to cuisine: You adore or you despise him. What's particularly unusual about the man, who's been back in Maryland just a year after a late 1980s stint as a superintendent in Frederick, isn't just that he engenders such emotion, or that he seems to attract as much media attention these days as Governor Schaefer or Mayor Schmoke.

What's really remarkable is that this is a school superintendent we're discussing. People are usually as passionate about their superintendents as -- we'll stick with the food analogies -- they are about creamed corn. One can go months without ever hearing from these people.

Unfortunately, after all the volumes that have been written, said and shouted about the man, the community seems no closer to understanding Dr. Berger: Is he a pioneer of education reform, bringing magnet schools, non-traditional report cards and full-day kindergarten to Baltimore County? Or is he some Jurassic beast menacing the teachers union and disgruntled parents?

It's impossible to judge from results in the schools -- the only important measure -- at this early stage. But he was credited with improving education in Frederick and Wichita, Kan., and his all-day kindergarten initiative here has come in for praise after only a year.

To his critics who claim the system isn't broke and doesn't need his fixing, statistics from the state Department of Education suggest otherwise. Baltimore County's results on last year's state performance tests were mediocre, with most students scoring at the two lowest levels. Moreover, the county maintains the greatest gap of any metropolitan Maryland county between the numbers of African-American students and of African-American staff. It has the greatest share of disadvantaged Chapter 1 students of any suburb in the state. It has a high percentage of special education students being educated outside regular classrooms, a situation Dr. Berger is pushing to solve in the face of a federal order. In short, Baltimore County schools face the worst of two worlds: the social problems of a city and the booming enrollment of the suburbs.

The fact is the county needs a Dr. Berger. The citizenry nationwide has been clamoring for a change in its public institutions, decrying largess and demanding vigor. That's what county residents have in their new superintendent and they should give him a chance.

To be sure, Dr. Berger has been his own enemy. He blew the handling of a messy affair between two Dulaney High School girls vying to be valedictorian. (He still insists that he didn't encourage the competition, but he admits he did not respond to it well publicly.) He badly underestimated the resistance of the tunnel-visioned teachers' union -- ''I should have understood I'm a threat to the organization.'' And, although his penchant for change always raised ire elsewhere, he unexplicably was caught off-guard when he confronted resistance here so quickly.

But he has the community talking about the schools, he has dedicated educators thinking about how best to deliver learning, and his approach -- how to do more, not just how to spend more -- is right for the times.

Many people, even his supporters, contend that Stuart Berger's greatest fault is that he speaks before he thinks. That's not it at all. His problem is that with his mind racing ever faster about how to improve the public schools of Baltimore County, only a trickle of the words needed to translate his torrent of thoughts ever makes it out of his mouth.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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