Berger, school board faulted by task force System's credibility damaged, report says BALTIMORE COUNTY

September 01, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

Baltimore County Superintendent Stuart Berger, with the approval of the school board that hired him, has damaged the school system's credibility by subjectively demoting and transferring administrators and rushing to transfer disabled students into neighborhood schools, a task force concluded yesterday.

The independent panel, appointed by the board to investigate two controversial issues that have angered parents, teachers and administrators, said that Dr. Berger's goals may have been laudable, but "the wrong way was taken to accomplish these goals." The task force was asked to investigate the transfer of special education students and of principals and assistant principals, many of whom were demoted despite "outstanding" evaluations.

The report blamed the board and Dr. Berger for the problems in the school system, saying that, though Dr. Berger informed the board of his decisions, "the school board either ignored the detrimental effects of these methods or truly did not understand their impact."

In the report released yesterday, the five-person task force called for "a healing process to restore confidence and trust in the Baltimore County public schools."

It also called on the board to create independent ombudsmen to review the processes and policies used to transfer principals and assistants and to move hundreds of children with disabilities out of special education centers.

The official report said "the board must ultimately determine whether it supports the means utilized to accomplish these goals."

In a separate letter, task force member James Sfekas, a retired Baltimore County Circuit Court judge, said: "In one year, Dr. Berger has destroyed the morale of teachers; he has brought untold misery to parents of special needs children; he has raised concerns of all parents with children in the school system; and he has alienated the general public."

Judge Sfekas applauded the new board president, Alan Leberknight, for his "determination to make the board more responsive to the concerns of parents, teachers and students. I share his dream to bring constructive change and improvement in the school system," he wrote. "I am convinced this dream cannot be realized under the present superintendent. I recommend the dismissal of Dr. Berger."

The superintendent refused to comment on the report during a news conference on unrelated matters yesterday, but he said that he had read it.

"I will under no circumstance respond to anything that is in the task force report. It's not my task force," he said after a meeting -- one teacher called it a "pep talk" -- with about 100 teachers from Sparrows Point Middle and High schools and Edgemere Elementary School.

He was upbeat about the school year that begins Tuesday. "I have just felt very, very good that more and more teachers are very, very supportive," Dr. Berger said. "The people in Baltimore County schools are a little tired of the pounding. I think we are going to go with very few hitches on Tuesday."

Responding for the board, Mr. Leberknight said that the report "becomes an indispensable tool for board, administration and county alike." In a statement read at the opening of a special board meeting last night, he said, "We are obliged to respond to the community with a course of action for the future. We are going to do this in a thoughtful and expeditious manner and our response will be public."

The board adjourned to executive session, from which the public and press are excluded.

The task force report was especially critical of the process surrounding the transfer of hundreds of disabled students out of the special education centers and into neighborhood schools. Because the process of transferring those students is the subject of a lawsuit, brought by parents and parent and teacher organizations, the task force did not rule on the legality of the process.

It did, however, fault the speed of the process, saying that most school districts take several years to institute such an "inclusion" plan, but "for some students Baltimore County implemented in less than three months what the model project recommends implementing in a two- to three-year period."

The task force also found that "the information communicated to the affected parents was at best confusing, and at worst misleading." Many parents of disabled children were not told, even in the spring, where their children were being transferred. As of Aug. 15, at least five parents still had not received written notice of their children's placements, the committee found.

Although the task force found considerable fault with the changes in special education, the Maryland State Department of Education will release what is said to be a supportive review of that situation today. The investigation was undertaken because the state department received more than 50 complaints.

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