Schools for Scandal

MICHAEL K. BURNS

July 17, 1993|By MICHAEL K. BURNS

Evoking images of the Stalinist reign of terror, those who hadescaped the purges rallied to declare their support for Fearless Leader. Their motivations of self- preservation and self-advancement were evident, but did not validate their sincerity.

So it was that 100 principals and assistants of Baltimore County schools assembled this month to proclaim support for Superintendent Stuart Berger and the havoc he has wreaked in his first year.

Baltimore County has never seen such turmoil in its schools, and the unprecedented magnitude of parent and teacher protest against such unreasoned, poorly constructed and badly implemented programs.

To call them ''plans'' would be a misnomer; that's something invariably missing from the carpetbag of this gypsy quick-change artist. A shoot-from-the-lip autocrat, Mr. Berger never has stayed anywhere long enough to account for his damage to children and their school systems.

The non-elected, non-accountable board that hired him is peddling the notion that the problem lies in lack of communication, poor public relations, a failure to ''sell'' his ideas.

It's style, not substance, that's at fault here, insists new school board president, Alan Leberknight. Despite the continuing outcry of parents and teachers, he says the board has done nothing wrong in substance. Mr. Berger's sole response was to name a new ''communications'' chief.

The board did appoint a task force to look into two controversies: the dismantling of the special-education schools and demotions of numerous longtime school administrators. The panel is to report back next month.

This apparent public concession is illusory: The panel is loaded with the interest groups assiduously courted by Mr. Berger, and Mr. Leberknight says panel findings likely won't affect anything this fall anyway.

This is the same arrogant school board that refused to hear from concerned parents at its regular meeting last month, a break with both tradition and the agenda. Then it held a secret, unadvertised meeting in willful contempt of the law.

The Baltimore County executive, who holds the school system's purse strings, finally had to call a meeting to force the board and Mr. Berger to listen to citizen complaints.

As he did in Wichita before coming here, the new superintendent has adeptly played the racial card to build a politically correct constituency, promising new programs to appease demands of black groups.

Pointing to goals for the entire county system, he has initiated programs for lower-income communities, to the exclusion of the majority of students, that seem based on income redistribution rather than educational improvement. All-day kindergarten and school breakfast programs have begun in so-called low-income areas, instead of being spread through the system. Mr. Berger also proposed free Montessori public schools for ''disadvantaged'' youngsters, with middle-class pupils paying high tuition. This strategy has helped to fuel alienation by the already overtaxed middle-class.

The superintendent angered parents of handicapped children by unilaterally uprooting special-education schools and taking $2 million from that budget for other needs, like flying in out-of-state interviewees for principal jobs. Hundreds of learning-disabled children at Chatsworth School have been reassigned to regular classrooms, so that he could move Deer Park Elementary School intact to that building.

In Wichita, he raised the flag of anti-Semitism as a defense when attacked, and accused his detractors of racism. But he's oblivious to religious observance, setting the 1994 school year opening during Rosh Hashana. And he disparages supporters of demoted school employees as ''only the people they go to church with.''

While he has shrewdly courted the media, with his sound-bite quips and jargonless philosophy, Mr. Berger sued the Frederick, Md., newspaper for libel when it attacked him.

If he is contemptuous of parents' concerns, he is equally dismissive of teachers' views. When they speak collectively, so he can't single them out for retribution, the Robespierre of Greenwood denounces them for ''outmoded trade unionism.''

The distorted site-based management he installed forces principals to squelch dissent, rather than giving parents a voice in their schools.

Mr. Berger did pull back from threatened wholesale changes to the ''gifted and talented'' program. His daughter benefited from a year in that program, giving the parent-superintendent some badly needed feedback from the classroom.

Michael K. Burns is a Baltimore Sun writer. He has a child in the Baltimore County school system.

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