Amprey's School Gamble

April 12, 1994

After three years as superintendent of the struggling Baltimore City school system, Walter G. Amprey has made his reorganization move. He has launched a sweeping decentralization effort with the goal of strengthening school-based management, shaking up and downsizing the bureaucratic administration on North Avenue and streamlining instructional programs. The first casualties of this upheaval: his two top deputies.

By the time a new school year begins in September, more than 100 administrators and educators will have their positions or place of work changed. Some will move up, many will move down. Some will choose to retire, others may be terminated.

In the past three decades, the Baltimore City school system has gone through a plethora of reorganizations.

As superintendents have come and gone, the pendulum has swung between centralization and decentralization. In his moves, Dr. Amprey has not only given principals more authority but also granted them budgeting powers. On paper at least, Dr. Amprey's is the most ambitious decentralization effort ever attempted.

Dr. Amprey argues that he has no choice. "We don't have much more time left," he says, referring to the failure of schools to deal with the pathology begotten by unruly children, dysfunctional families and unsafe neighborhoods.

He says previous reorganizations failed because they were attempted by superintendents who may have been well versed in national trends but were not sufficiently knowledgeable about Baltimore and its peculiarities. Dr. Amprey says that his Baltimore roots and experiences make him different.

We hope so. He is well aware of one of the system's major deterrents to change: its domination by a clubby network of administrators linked to one another by marriage or kinship, or fraternity or sorority membership. That network protects its own and resists those not among its members.

In taking on the entrenched central bureaucracy, Dr. Amprey is inviting a fight. Many previous superintendents have unsuccessfully tried to defuse or curb that network's power.

As Dr. Amprey tries to sort through Baltimore's flower bed of sprouting instructional experiments so he can identify and remove the weeds, we foresee much lobbying and all kinds of alliances of convenience among various interest groups to preserve the status quo. It could be a hot spring and summer for the school chief.

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