Berger denies that his decisions were unfair or without basis BALTIMORE COUNTY

August 20, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Baltimore County school Superintendent Stuart Berger yesterday defended himself vigorously against criticism over his transfer and demotion of school administrators and his plans to move hundreds of disabled students from special education centers to neighborhood schools.

In a written statement to a citizen task force investigating the actions, Dr. Berger said that the personnel process is inherently subjective. But that does not mean, he wrote, that his decisions to move or demote an unusually large number of principals and assistants in June were unfair or without basis.

While he defended the movement of handicapped students to regular schools, Dr. Berger conceded that he had made a mistake by not interceding personally when parents began expressing concerns about the so-called "inclusion" process.

Dr. Berger's letter was the final piece of information the task force needed to prepare its report, which is to be submitted to the Board of Education by month's end, Chairman Sanford V. Teplitzky said.

Last week the panel released preliminary findings alleging that Dr. Berger based his personnel decisions solely on the "subjective recommendations of 14 individuals sitting around a conference table" without regard to past performance reviews.

The panel said the system also may have violated state and federal law by moving special education students to neighborhood schools before reviewing each student's needs and by failing to include required information in reviews that had been performed.

Mr. Teplitzky would not comment on the superintendent's statement yesterday. He said it is one piece of evidence among the array of interviews and correspondence amassed by the five-member task force staff which will draft the final report. "I wouldn't want to give it more or less importance than any other piece of information," he said.

The staff interviewed Dr. Berger three times as it conducted more than 80 interviews with parents, teachers and school administrators and collected nearly 300 pieces of correspondence.

In June, a torrent of criticism directed at Dr. Berger erupted over the student relocation and the reassignment of about 40 administrators. Hundreds of parents and teachers staged protests and rallies and vented their rage in meeting rooms, on radio talk shows and in letters to newspapers.

The anger reached such a peak that Rosalie Hellmann stepped down as school board president last month and her successor, Alan M. Leberknight, appointed the task force to investigate both issues.

Special education parents charged that the students were transferred without proper notice or procedures and that their youngsters would be short-changed by being forced into schools and environments unequipped to handle them.

Groups representing county teachers and families of disabled children sought an emergency order in federal court to halt the transfer plan, calling it a "dismantling" of special education schools and classes that violates federal law. But U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II denied the request.

In his letter to the task force, Dr. Berger said that, despite the mistakes, which he attributed to poor communications, "inclusion" of special education students is required by federal law and "is right educationally." He said the school department followed the law to achieve the goal of having handicapped students educated in the least restrictive environment.

Although he said he did not take an active role soon enough, he argued that "there was a great deal of communication" with parents. He gave the task force pages of letters and flyers announcing meetings held to explain what was happening.

On the personnel issue, Dr. Berger challenged disgruntled administrators to present at least "a modicum of evidence" that their demotions or transfers were the result of "discrimination and retaliation" against those who disagree with his policies, as some have alleged.

He also denied charges that the process by which the department cleaned house during a meeting of top administrators in early April was "clandestine and unfair."

Among the 14 people in the room when the decisions were made were the direct supervisors of those affected by reassignment and a deputy superintendent who knew everyone involved, Dr. Berger said.

While many principals and assistants were under the assumption that they couldn't be removed or reassigned without just cause, a consideration of prior evaluations and being provided the opportunity to improve their performance, the school board quietly changed those rules just before the meeting at which the decisions were made.

But Dr. Berger argued in his statements that all administrators and the teachers' union were sent copies of the new rules. None of the personnel actions was capricious or arbitrary, he said, adding, "If subjectivity were eliminated, no personnel decision could ever be made."

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