How Not to Stand by Your Man

September 22, 1993

It seems the Baltimore County Board of Education took too literally the Tammy Wynette theme of blind loyalty, "Stand By Your Man." Last week, in its response to the report of the task force investigating the demotions of 40 administrators and the inclusion of special education students in regular schools, the board restated its unswerving support of Superintendent Stuart Berger. Yet by dismissing a negative report on these two highly emotional issues, the board has done no favors for its man.

Indeed, since its release last week the response has jacked up the heat under Dr. Berger and the board. Witness the county pols proposing bills to turn the appointed board into an elected one.

It's hard to fault the board's 14-page answer on a technical basis. Legally, all the t's are crossed, the i's dotted. The thing is air-tight. Too air-tight, in fact. It ignores the political realities that must be addressed if the board is to end the controversy that has engulfed it for months.

The task force, for example, recommended hiring ombudsmen to handle public complaints. But the board pooh-poohed the suggestion, arguing it would conflict with the established role of the teachers union. Couldn't it have arranged a solution satisfactory to the union? Of the 11 task force recommendations, creation of an ombudsman seemed one of the easiest to grant. However, the board members were too myopic to use this chance to placate their worst detractors. Instead, they've only made the critics angrier.

When he became school board president in July, Alan Leberknight vowed that the panel would be more attuned to public wishes. The creation of the task force appeared to be an excellent first step. But the board stumbled badly by rejecting much of what its own task force had to say after completing its investigation. While not actually required to accept any of the task force recommendations, the board was nonetheless in the position of having to implement at least some of them in order to begin healing a battered school system.

The upshot? Dr. Berger and the board are as vulnerable as ever. Some of their critics have demanded the resignations of the superintendent or the board or both, but that would only worsen the turmoil. Still, board members must realize that if Dr. Berger is to carry out the academic vision he was hired to fulfill, they must help him negotiate the turbulent politics that the task entails, a skill he admittedly and demonstrably does not possess. That's how they could best stand by their man.

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