Berger's the Boss

August 26, 1993

Baltimore County School Superintendent Stuart Berger should be fair game for criticism about programs that directly affect students. But the detractors ought to back off when it comes to how the top man oversees his operation and the people who work under him.

The school system's demotion of 40 principals and assistant principals was, along with the special-education inclusion issue, the source of much controversy a few months back. The investigative panel of a task force commissioned by the school board to study both issues has said Dr. Berger made the demotions in an arbitrary manner, ignoring favorable performance reviews and creating "an atmosphere of fear and intimidation."

The panel's findings, released two weeks ago, will probably serve as the basis of the final task force report, due to be released tomorrow.

Critics of Dr. Berger's handling of this matter have zeroed in on two points -- the high marks the demoted employees received in past job evaluations, and a process rule changed by the school system just before the downgradings happened.

These don't strike us as damning arguments. Indications are that at least some of the written evaluations, like those in other professions, can't be taken too seriously because they gave inflated reviews -- which is especially unfair to the truly good workers. As Dr. Berger told the task force last week, subjectivity might have been why these people were demoted, but it was also why they were promoted in the first place. Gut instinct and experience are what most bosses use to base their staffing decisions, not written evaluations.

As for the contested change in the process rule, that seems a technicality at best. No matter the timing of the rule change, the demotions would eventually have occurred if top school officials were intent on making them.

What the issue boils down to is whether a superintendent should be able to alter programs and shift staffers as he and the Board of Education see fit. We believe he should, especially when reform is needed, as it is in Baltimore County. Stuart Berger was hired expressly to implement the initiatives first laid out in a 10-year plan written in 1989 by the administration of his predecessor, Robert Dubel, and community leaders. In trying to carry out this vision, Dr. Berger should be allowed to select the personnel he feels are up to the task at hand and reject those who are not.

Tomorrow: The year ahead.

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