Healing Baltimore County Schools

January 22, 1994

We set out to write a piece that might "heal" the divisions that have festered between the community and the Baltimore County school system, and within the system itself. Upon greater reflection, though, we wondered whether President Clinton wouldn't have an easier time brokering peace in the Middle East.

Our biggest challenge in playing peacemaker is that we're seen as champions of county Superintendent Stuart Berger. Indeed, we were impressed with him from the start, from the summer day in 1992 when he stumbled off the back elevator at The Sun building, without the customary entourage of handholders and public relations spinners, to meet with the editorial board. If his appearance was slightly disheveled, his notions about education were fresh and sharp and spun dry of stultifying educationese. He spoke of reaching harder for the students who were hardest to reach; of dynamiting the bureaucracy; of decentralizing authority. In fact, Dr. Berger has moved to accomplish the sea changes that he described that day.

How, then, did Dr. Berger become the Saddam Hussein of Greenwood in many people's eyes? Undoubtedly he is responsible for some of his own problems. The candor that initially looks so impressive has also led Dr. Berger to make inopportune public comments. So incapable is he of biting his tongue one would think he didn't have teeth. As for his most bitter controversy, the shifting of segregated special education students to regular schools, he moved too fast due to a miscalculation: "Inclusion" was embraced where he had been before; he assumed that would be the case here, too. Critics contend the transformation has been a failure; others say it is working well. The truth lies in between, and with the spotlight on inclusion, problems won't long go unattended.

The main reason for all the interest in Dr. Berger, even beyond Baltimore County, is that he is a leader of a different stripe. Your average superintendent earns more than the county executive, controls half the county budget -- and of 24 in Maryland, we defy most people to name more than three. They are typically anonymous leaders who don't make waves, who retreat from controversies.

Even many of the people who work for Dr. Berger, up to the highest administrative levels, don't know what to make of him. Many fear challenging him. They are wrong. He wants to be challenged. He wants new ideas. He has little respect for people who won't take a stand, won't take a risk.

Forget about Frederick. Forget about Wichita. This debate should not be about where Stuart Berger has been; it should be about where Baltimore County is going. Maybe the desire for peace in a system led by Dr. Berger is a foolish hope. He's not about peace. He's about change. And those who say he doesn't care about people are half right; he doesn't care about the comfort level of adults one iota. His motivation is the education of young people. We cannot see what is wrong with that.

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