Amprey catches reorganization bug

April 07, 1994

Unlike his numerous, more impulsive predecessors, School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey was able to resist an urge to reorganize the city public school system for nearly three years. But now that he has caught the bug, he is pledging to do a major house-cleaning in the name of improving education. As an opener, he has downgraded his two top deputies. By the time this reorganization is implemented in September, more than 100 administrators may have been transferred, demoted or terminated.

We will be watching this unfolding drama with fascination. All we say is: Dr. Amprey better be right. The history of the Baltimore City school system over the past three decades has been an unending pendulum movement from one reorganization to another. Meanwhile the goal -- improving education -- has remained elusive.

In the most memorable of the blood baths, the late Roland Patterson fired his 22 top administrators in 1972 and then invited them to apply for jobs. In all, he claimed to have eliminated more than 150 positions. By the time Dr. Patterson himself was fired, it was apparent that little had changed. The school system was still ruled by a cabal of entrenched bureaucrats, many of whom were linked to one another either by familial ties of marriage and kinship or by social ties of fraternity or sorority membership.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Dr. Amprey seems to have fully recognized how incestuous the protective networks of school system insiders can be. He is pledging to effect a systemic change.

He has started it in a peculiar way, however, by demoting his deputies Lillian Gonzalez and Patsy Baker Blackshear, neither of whom was part of the clubby network of old-time administrators. In fact, they were unsuccessful applicants for the job Dr. Amprey got and were handed to him -- without his having any real say -- as part of a peculiar power-sharing arrangement engineered by the school board in 1991.

If the message here is that no one is untouchable in reorganization, that's as understandable as Dr. Amprey's wanting to create a leadership structure of his own choosing after three years. But, again, Dr. Amprey had better be right because so many changes are now being implemented in schools that the system could put all the talent it has to good use.

As part of decentralization, principals are given wide powers. Those powers include budgeting for their schools, an area in which few have any expertise -- and, perhaps, ability -- at all. The next few months will clearly be a time of great turbulence. As various pressure groups gang up on him, we hope Dr. Amprey has a lot of stamina and steely nerves.

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