Schools meeting called Hayden steps into controversy as peacemaker

June 19, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

After months of silence about the controversy surrounding school Superintendent Stuart Berger, Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden stepped into the fight yesterday as peacemaker.

Mr. Hayden, a former school board president, called for a public meeting next week at which teachers, parents, school board members and administrators can discuss their differences. Another former school board president, Donald Pearce, who appeared with Mr. Hayden, will chair the meeting, the executive said.

Mr. Hayden acknowledged that his help was not requested by school authorities, but said he felt compelled to try to quell "the high emotional feelings running rampant in the community."

He called a news conference to announce his action after school board President Rosalie Hellman literally shut the doors on hundreds of angry parents and teachers who appeared to speak at its regular meeting Thursday night.

"I . . . have the responsibility to respond to citizens whose calls and letters have increased to the point of alarm during the past several days," Mr. Hayden said.

Although Mr. Hayden said he did not consult school officials before his announcement, both Mrs. Hellman and Ed Veit, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, praised his motives and his actions.

"Obviously, this group [of parents and teachers] wants to have a dialogue with the board. We need to create a forum," Mrs. Hellman said.

Thursday night's meeting was not the place for such an exchange, she said, explaining that she adjourned the meeting suddenly because "I was beginning to lose control."

Dr. Berger declined to comment because he was never formally advised of Mr. Hayden's actions, said Myra Trieber, a school department spokeswoman.

As the school year closed yesterday, complaints from teachers and parents about Dr. Berger's administration increased. Teachers are upset at what they see as an authoritarian style and a headlong rush to change for its own sake.

Parents of severely handicapped youngsters have also mounted a campaign of letter writing and calls to telephone talk shows in a last-ditch attempt to keep their children from being transferred from special education centers to neighborhood schools.

Mr. Hayden said yesterday that his experience equips him to act as mediator.

"I've closed 24 schools," he said, referring to his own stint as a board member from 1974 to 1986, when declining school enrollments sparked fierce debates over what buildings to shut down. "I've been around high emotion at meetings. It [public dialogue and participation] works."

Although Mrs. Hellman called Mr. Hayden's announcement "a sincere gesture -- an all-out action to really try to defuse the situation," she questioned whether a mass meeting would have the desired effect.

"Can you have a dialogue with 800 people?" she asked.

Mr. Hayden took pains to emphasize that he was not interfering in school board business, but merely offering his help. Unlike Baltimore, with a school board appointed by a mayor who effectively has final say over major issues, Baltimore County's board is appointed by the governor and jealously guards its autonomy.

In fact, Mr. Hayden first decided to run for office because of his own outrage at former Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen's ultimately unsuccessful attempts to get the school board appointment power for himself.

Mr. Hayden said repeatedly yesterday that some board members appointed by the governor with Mr. Rasmussen's backing may not have had enough time to learn to be effective. Board members now serve five-year terms, with a limit of 10 years.

Mr. Pearce served from 1980 to 1990 and was president for his last four years.

Leah Packard, PTA president at the White Oak special education school, attended Mr. Hayden's news conference and called his action "very politically astute.

"It's an excellent idea," she said, noting that in the past, Mr. Hayden has always referred complaining parents to the school board.

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