Stuart Berger's Magnet Muddle

June 06, 1994

When sexual harassment charges get brought against President Clinton, some folks are more inclined to believe them because the president's image on that score is poor. Similarly, when Baltimore County Superintendent Stuart Berger stumbles in the ways of public relations, the muff gets magnified because of his contentious history.

A superintendent trying to effect the change that Dr. Berger is undertaking in Baltimore County schools can't afford carelessness in community communications. Dr. Berger contends a recent flap over whether to place a "magnet" program in Parkville Middle School was overblown -- just more convenient ammunition for his opponents.

While we agree with Dr. Berger and the Board of Education's mission to reform the school system in a county that's getting older, more urban and less affluent, the administration must realize it is going to be under a microscope in such an atmosphere of change.

Parkville Middle parents said they were embarrassed for one of Dr. Berger's assistant superintendents, Steve Jones, at a recent meeting; only minutes after Dr. Jones announced that the community could decide whether its middle school should have a magnet program, Dr. Berger apologetically told the audience that he had already decided to put the program at Parkville due to available space there; only its content would be decided by consensus.

Dr. Berger admits to crossed wires between him and his assistant, but says he didn't want to mislead the parents. When he heard Dr. Jones describe the magnet-decision process differently than he thought they had agreed upon, he said he felt a need to step in rather that let the parents go through the charade of establishing a committee to arrive at a conclusion the administration had already reached.

Dr. Berger probably would have been better off to let the process run that unintended course; chances are the parents would have bought into the concept of specialized schooling that is playing well elsewhere in the county.

Any operation, whether in the public or private sectors, will have its hands full coping with the resistance inherent in taking bold strokes. If Baltimore County's school reforms are going to succeed, positives -- such as opening a magnet school to energize students in a section of the county that's underserved for such programs -- can't get mangled into negatives.

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