Stuart Berger's PR Nightmare

June 25, 1993

It got a little nasty at times. It went on too long -- a brain-boggling six hours, from Wednesday evening til the wee hours of Thursday. And it probably would have been easier to take if everyone didn't have to sit on those hard wooden seats.

Still, it was good that critics of the Baltimore County school board and Superintendent Stuart Berger got to unload their frustrations in a face-to-face confrontation with education officials at the Loch Raven High School auditorium.

Good for the critics to vent, and good for the board and Dr. Berger to listen. Good, too, for African-American parents to speak up in defense of the school system's broadened approach. The question is, did it all come too late to make a difference?

This newspaper has consistently backed the superintendent and his programs. Moreover, we view many of the complaints against him as rooted in a reflexive fear of seeing the status quo shaken up.

Yet we also have cautioned that Dr. Berger could end up wrecking the school system's commendable new agenda if he doesn't wake up from this public relations nightmare he has created.

During his first year as superintendent, he has appeared too quick to dismiss those who disagree with him. Even as he pushes adult-like forms of empowerment for children, he tends to react to unruly parents and teachers as if they were ill-behaved kids. That does zilch to get his points across.

We believe in Dr. Berger's dedication to learning and to bettering the lot of Baltimore County students, especially those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. He is clearly a bright and imaginative man. For all his attributes, however, he seems to sorely lack the ability -- or the willingness -- to sell himself and his programs.

The changes that the board and Dr. Berger are implementing -- first recommended in a 1989 report written under the administration of then-superintendent Robert Y. Dubel -- likely would have produced malcontents no matter how slick the packaging. But the protests might have been muted had there been more of an effort to identify the offended parties early and to make them feel that their concerns were being addressed or at least heard.

That apparently was what the Loch Raven meeting was about, though the gathering was organized by County Executive Roger Hayden, not by school officials. It's good that the attempt was made. Better still if it serves as a signal to Dr. Berger and the board that selling their programs is just as important as creating them.

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