Tumult and overdue innovations

August 27, 1993

The fast-paced school reforms introduced over the past year by Baltimore County Superintendent Stuart Berger were enough throw a lot of residents for a loop. Many of them were further agitated by what they perceived to be the arrogant style of Dr. Berger and some of his top staffers. Then, when controversies erupted last spring over special-education inclusion and the demotions of principals, Dr. Berger became the most controversial public official the county, maybe this region, had seen in years.

Dr. Berger and his assistants, in his own words, "blew it" on inclusion -- the shifting of special education students into regular classes. Instead of carefully selling the concept, officials rushed it through with insufficient public input. Inclusion is a good idea, but it has been executed poorly. The system reportedly has begun the outreach to special-ed families that wasn't happening before. These efforts must continue if inclusion is to get the chance it deserves.

The demotions issue comes down to whether a superintendent should be able to alter programs and shift staffers as he sees fit. We think he should, especially when reform is needed, as in the county. In trying to carry out the vision detailed in a 10-year plan written in 1989 by the school officials and community leaders, Dr. Berger should get to select the personnel he feels would be up to the task at hand and reject those who wouldn't.

What makes the tumult over these matters most unfortunate is that it distracts from the overdue innovations taking place in county schools. To ensure a calmer year this time around, the system has revamped its communications office, and new Board of Education president Alan Leberknight says he'll be more responsive to public concerns. He already formed a task force to study the system's handling of inclusion and the demotions. The group's final report is due today, and it apparently will be critical of Dr. Berger. If very critical, it could incite his detractors to be more determined to topple him and the new programs.

We hope that won't be the case. Stuart Berger's critics should look at the task force as proof of the system's new openness instead of as an opportunity to go for the superintendent's jugular. Dr. Berger and other school officials have done a poor job selling their agenda, and they must do better. If the public could meet them halfway, maybe everyone can concentrate on carrying out the commendable academic vision that Dr. Berger was hired to fulfill.

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