Leonard Duffy had two reactions when he heard that the Baltimore County school board was looking for someone outside the school system to listen to the concerns of parents, students, teachers and other citizens:
* He could do the job.
* But a person would be crazy to take it.
Well, call the Towson consultant, community activist and father of four a lunatic if you like. He is the school board's new liaison, and this week he stepped into a position the board once rejected on legal grounds, then reluctantly embraced when public demands that such a position be created would not die.
Though the uproar that surrounded Superintendent Stuart Berger and the board through the spring and summer has diminished considerably, sniping continues, and wary parents watch as change comes to the county schools.
But Mr. Duffy, 49, is enthusiastic and undaunted.
"This is really exciting," he told the board this week after being appointed to the part-time position. "I'm looking forward to it."
And he's jumping right in.
The morning after his appointment, before his contract was even signed, he met with executives of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County (TABCO), who have criticized many of the changes in the school system.
"He really made a very good case for his independence," said TABCO President Ray Suarez. "He guaranteed confidentiality."
But Mr. Suarez added, "I don't think a part-time person can fulfill the recommendation [of the schools' task force], as well qualified as Mr. Duffy is."
Beginning Tuesday, the liaison phone will take messages 24 hours a day. Mr. Duffy plans to take calls himself two hours a day. He will announce those hours on his voice mail. He also will receive letters at a post office box and will try to answer all inquiries within 48 hours.
He said he hopes to have a "soothing influence" on the school community and to be "a communicator" in a system repeatedly criticized for failing to communicate. He also plans to be a detached adviser to people who need answers and direction.
Though he thought he could do the job, Mr. Duffy did not apply for it or even put out feelers. He said a board member approached him two weeks ago, after the board's first deadline for filling the position had passed.
"There were three or four really serious possibilities" for the job, said Alan M. Leberknight, president of the board, who noted Mr. Duffy's professional background and the fact that he has a son in special education. "He brought all the elements together that we were looking for."
Mr. Duffy, who has degrees in physics and business, is president of Support Services Group Inc., a Towson consulting and training business.
He said he has a "wide-open contract" until June 30 and will be paid $14,500 for his work as liaison. The board established broad guidelines
but also gave him latitude to do the job his way.
Mr. Duffy is not a newcomer to Baltimore County schools; he is a product of them -- Milford Mill High School, Class of 1962. His two sons graduated from Loch Raven High School, classes of 1989 and 1991. His daughter, Katie, is a second-grader at Hampstead Elementary School. Another son, Zachary, is in the kindergarten program for autistic children at Timonium Elementary School. By the time Zachary graduates from high school, Mr. Duffy figures, he will have had children in the county schools for 31 consecutive years.
Until his appointment, Mr. Duffy served on the school system's Central Area Advisory Council and was co-chairman of the Outcomes-Based Education Steering Committee, which is introducing reforms to the schools.
During the past year, he has been a closer-than-usual observer of the school system. When administrators asked citizens for ideas on reorganizing the school system, Mr. Duffy developed a 30-page proposal.
When the school system started exploring ways to relieve overcrowding in central area schools, he planted the idea of reopening Cromwell Elementary School in his neighborhood. That will happen in September.
And Mr. Duffy was among the hundreds who attended the now-infamous public hearing on the school system's ills in June at Loch Raven High School. He waited nearly five hours to speak.
Robin Read, principal of Hampton Elementary School, gives Mr. Duffy high marks.
"He's been asking questions about Baltimore County schools for [at least] five years," said Mr. Read, adding that Mr. Duffy occasionally stops in to talk about educational trends. "He does research on what's going on out there. . . . He is not your average citizen concerned about education."
County Councilman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, calls Mr. Duffy "my educational consultant." Mr. Riley met Mr. Duffy several years ago and in time learned of his expertise in education.
Mr. Duffy has his own theory about why the recent changes have caused such a furor. For years, he said, there was no reason to question the system.
"The parents, the community certainly were told year after year this is a super system. It's a good system. Change is going to make it world class. With any change, there's anxiety," he said. "I think the entire system, from the teachers to the administrators to the board, was simply unprepared for the impact of change.
"We, as parents, never required the board to communicate. All parties were ill-prepared for the demand for answers and communication. Change brings out all the rough edges that have been there all along."
Now, it's Len Duffy's job to smooth them over.