Our Favorite Demon

October 10, 1993|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

His critics have likened him to Hitler, Stalin and Robespierre.They have called him "Satan's helper." Nasty rumors have been circulated about him, including one whopper that he had been indicted for heinous criminal acts.

Perhaps the cruelest rumor of all alleged that he is related to writers for The Sun!

No, the demon in question isn't Saddam Hussein. It's not General Mohamed Farah Aidid. Nor is it Rush Limbaugh. It's Stuart Berger, the superintendent of Baltimore County public schools since July 1992.

A controversial figure during his previous superintendencies in Wichita, Kan., and Frederick County, Dr. Berger wasted little time becoming the bane of many Baltimore countians and, consequently, a major meal ticket for local talk radio. Scant months after taking over in Towson, he was one of the most famous (or infamous) news-makers in the region. Residents of neighboring jurisdictions might not know who runs their respective school systems, but odds are they know who heads Baltimore County's public schools.

How to explain this phenomenon? First, Dr. Berger was hired expressly to shake things up. He was brought in to implement a slew of new ideas in a system where the status quo had long ruled, to the partial detriment of the schools.

Second, there's the manner in which Dr. Berger, his staffers and Board of Education members have gone about this mission -- that is to say, not always very well. They have admitted to being poor communicators. Moreover, as their critics charge, education officials have made statements and taken actions that revealed, at best, an obliviousness to selling the changes properly or, at worst, a flat-out arrogance toward parents and school employees.

Either way, the upshot is that a lot of folks in Baltimore County these days are steamed at Dr. Berger and the school board.

When the superintendent and board members slip up -- for example, by mishandling the inclusion of special education students in regular schools or dismissing the negative findings of a board-created task force on administrative procedures -- they ought to be subject to criticism. That's fair and proper. And heaven knows the critics have kept themselves busy during the past year. Heaven also knows that school officials have provided the critics with plenty of ammo.

What isn't fair and proper, though, is The critics have kept themselves busyduring the past year.

when the faultfinding takes on an ugly personal tone that has little to do with advancing the debate about the course of education but plenty to do with demonizing Stuart Berger. This has been the case for much of the past several months, not among all his detractors but still among many.

Dr. Berger probably wouldn't be so vilified if he didn't possess certain characteristics that just don't jibe with the culture of Baltimore County. Consider his predecessor, Dr. Robert Dubel, and the recently retired county police chief, Cornelius Behan. Diplomatic, fatherly, neat as proverbial pins, Dr. Dubel and Chief Behan appeared as perfect in their posts as if they had been tapped by Central Casting. Either man would have been right at home as the daddy figure in an old-fashioned sitcom like "Father Knows Best."

Dr. Berger, in contrast, tends to look and act like the stand-up comic he once aspired to be. He's a man of rough edges -- from his sometimes rumpled appearance (a favorite target of his detractors) to his sharp, occasionally caustic wit. Imagine Don Rickles at a suburban Tupperware party. That's Stuart Berger. In stand-up parlance, Baltimore County isn't his room.

Consciously or unconsciously, many of his critics have sensed these differences and made them part of the discussion about important school issues. That's unfortunate, not just for Dr. Berger but also for the critics. By personalizing the matter to the extent they have, they've allowed him to deflect criticism of his agenda with the shrugging observation that the naysayers simply have it in for him. The shrillness of their personal attacks on Adolf-Josef-Beelzebub Berger has only served to cancel out any valid critiques they might offer.

Make no mistake. The superintendent and board members should be knocked for their professional miscues, and even for displaying personality flaws such as arrogance. But that doesn't mean the criticisms should be lowered to the level of a schoolyard name-calling contest, as they have been all too often by people who should know better.

Dr. Berger's most personal critics need to bear in mind that no one really benefits -- not the superintendent, the board, parents, teachers and especially students -- when the education debate is poisoned by the demonization of school officials.

Remember when President George Bush sought to stoke public enthusiasm for Operation Desert Storm by likening Saddam Hussein to Hitler? Even some of the most staunch opponents of Saddam found President Bush's demonization of the Iraqi dictator distasteful. They raised a stink about it, rightly asserting that a historic figure as vile and destructive as Hitler belongs in a class by himself.

They said, in effect, "Cool it, Mr. Bush." The same should be said to the parents, educators, politicians and radio talkmeisters trying to paint Stuart Berger as the devil with an education doctorate. Stick to the issues, folks. It's one thing to trash the man's policies. It's quite another to trash the man.

Patrick Ercolano is a member of the editorial board of The Baltimore Sun.

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