Pressures on Amprey mount

June 13, 1994|By Gary Gately and JoAnna Daemmrich | Gary Gately and JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writers

Nine months ago, when Walter G. Amprey emerged as a finalist for New York City's top schools job, the prospect of his leaving Baltimore brought an outpouring of support and pleas for him to stay.

Praised as a man with a mission and, more importantly, the vision to resuscitate the failing schools, the Baltimore schools superintendent had won over countless converts among lawmakers, civic leaders, parents and teachers. They expressed considerable relief when the superintendent withdrew from the New York race to remain in the city where he grew up and graduated from public schools.

You could forgive Dr. Amprey if he looked back now and savored the memory of such popularity.

Today, as he begins the final week of his third year at the helm, he finds himself the object of mounting criticism and doubts.

His harshest critics question his ability to rebuild schools that haveshown little or no improvement in student performance, attendance and dropout rates during his three years. Detractors say Dr. Amprey's failure to build consensus and his insistence on expanding an unproven school privatization venture have eroded confidence in him.

But his defenders suggest that while protests have garnered attention, a much quieter majority cheers him. Dr. Amprey has insisted on change, though it hasn't come as quickly or as smoothly as he would like.

By the end of what has come to be known as "hell week" at North Avenue headquarters, the charismatic superintendent spoke of healing and restoring a sense of purpose. "It's definitely been my most tumultuous week," he said.

"I think that trust has to be built up. . . . I think there could be long-term damage if we didn't recognize and take advantage of what's happening here. If we're not sincere here in what we doing -- if we're just doing something to just go through the motions -- then it's going to show in long-term damage."

In the past week, Dr. Amprey has seen sentiment against him spill over into protest from the central administration to City Hall, from Baltimore's streets to a sweltering auditorium at Patterson High. In a four-day span:

* Hundreds of teachers, their fellow union members and parents marched on City Hall, chanting, "The superintendent must go!" They accused the superintendent of trying to break the union's will during bitter contract negotiations by sending all 10,000 school employees a letter warning of a "considerable number" of layoffs and reassignments.

* More than 400 students walked out of Patterson High to protest Dr. Amprey's plan to let a Maine boarding school known for discipline run their East Baltimore school.

* Leaders of a proposed Waverly-area school to be run by teachers and parents stormed out of a packed hearing when Dr. Amprey and the school board refused to tell them whether their school would receive as much money per student as those run by Education Alternatives Inc.

* Unions, teachers, parents and community leaders demanded a halt to expanding the city's school privatization venture, saying it diverts millions from other public schools to an unproven experiment. The target: EAI, the for-profit Minnesota company that came under criticism last week when it admitted overstating scores on computerized tests at its "Tesseract" schools.

* The 8,500-member Baltimore Teachers Union called for Dr. Amprey's resignation, then pledged to withdraw the demand after a late-night summit arranged by the mayor between Dr. Amprey and union leaders. The next day, the truce collapsed, BTU President Irene Dandridge told reporters, a claim that surprised Dr. Amprey.

"We're in the middle of change, and it's difficult and it's hot," said Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd District, who heads the council's Education Committee.

Inevitably, the questions about the superintendent's leadership of the 113,00-student school district have been magnified by the sparring between Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his declared rival, Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

Just as inevitably, given the vocal opposition, the questions came with bewildering frequency. Will the mayor rein in the superintendent? Has Dr. Amprey become a political liability? Is the damage to relationships with administrators, the union, teachers and powerful civic groups irreparable?

Or, as others would suggest, does the opposition simply represent a resistance to wrenching, but necessary, change and a union-led effort to preserve the jobs of even the most incompetent teachers in failing schools? The answers, of course, depend on whom you ask. But few longtime school system observers would dispute that Dr. Amprey's tenure has reached a critical crossroads.

"It was inevitable that Dr. Amprey's extended honeymoon would come to an end," said Jeffrey Valentine, vice president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

"Walter is doing some tough love to the school system. People need to be told what they need to hear whether they want to hear it or not."

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