A calmer year for Balto. Co. school chief

June 26, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Spend an hour with Superintendent Stuart Berger and he'll tell you this has been "a wonderful year, quieter by design" than the last one. He'll say that he's mellowed, that he accepts defeat more easily and that he likes what he sees in the schools.

"I'm surprised at how well it's gone," Dr. Berger says of his second year in charge of the Baltimore County schools. "I don't think we've said 'Peace at any cost,' but we haven't wanted any big fights."

Drive down the hill from Dr. Berger's office on North Charles Street, however, and you'll get a different message. There, tacked to a telephone pole, is a small hand-lettered sign: "Fire Berger." A few blocks south on Charles Street, there's another: "Berger Must Go."

Dr. Berger's upbeat assessment and the terse messages from the disgruntled are hallmarks of his era. If anything is clear about the Berger days, it is that little is clear.

Dr. Berger is upholding his image as "a change agent" with a fiery nature, although he and his critics have been calmer lately. There are fewer radio talk-show tirades by his enemies, but rumors still fly and skirmishes erupt regularly.

Absent is last year's furor, when Dr. Berger left the June school board meeting through a window with a police escort, rather than by the front door where parents and teachers angered by demotions of veteran administrators and the sudden % 5/8 reassignment of hundreds of disabled students awaited him.

Some observers say Dr. Berger's critics are tired -- discouraged because their outcries have not brought relief from his fast-paced agenda or in-your-face style. Others say there are fewer critics because there is less to upset them.

A recent parents' forum sponsored by County Council Chairman William A. Howard IV drew only 100 people to Loch Raven High School, about 40 of whom expressed their unhappiness about county schools.

Few of their issues were new -- class sizes, school board accountability, watered-down curricula, less emphasis on basics. Many of the speakers wondered where everyone else was. "This place should be full," one said.

Dr. Berger puts it this way: "There's a hard-core group of people -- about 10 to 20 percent of the community -- who are against me. And there's another 10 to 20 percent who would fight to the death to keep the changes going. The others are in the middle."

Dr. Berger recalled one woman who recently told him she was a "mute supporter."

"All my supporters are mute," he said, laughing. "You cannot be for Stuart Berger; that's not politically correct. But, you can be against Stuart Berger; that's politically correct."

Still, some are complimentary.

"There are a lot of interesting, positive things that have happened with Stuart Berger," said Leonard Duffy, the board's first community liaison. "He's really forced the implementation of some of the things the community said it wanted in the Great Expectations for 2000," a plan developed during the tenure of Dr. Berger's predecessor, Robert Y. Dubel.

Pressure from public

The liaison's position itself was a concession to Dr. Berger's critics. Under public pressure, the board reluctantly created the job on the recommendation of an independent task force that looked into the handling of two controversies -- the transfer of disabled students from special education centers and the involuntary transfer and demotion of 40 administrators.

Board president Alan M. Leberknight convened the task force last summer after that fiery board meeting at which his predecessor, Rosalie Hellman, shut the doors on an angry crowd.

In a critical report, the panel concluded that "inclusion" of special education students was "too much too soon" and that the personnel moves "created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear of retaliation."

Though Dr. Berger has been uncharacteristically quiet about the task force, he said in a recent interview that he "totally disagreed" with its conclusions. While he understood why the panel was created, he said, its work slowed down some of his.

But Calvin Disney, the board's vice president, praises the task force chaired by attorney Sanford V. Teplitzky.

"I think things have gone better this year, and that is principally because of the Teplitzky task force," he said. "We have fully implemented or implemented in spirit [its] recommendations, and the front-line people have tried very hard to make things work."

Task forces and liaisons have not changed some minds.

"It's as bad as ever," said Shirley Giberson, an outspoken Berger critic who organized a parents' rights group to oust him and several board members in March 1993. "He has shown no more competence than in the beginning. He's a little more muzzled, but he does pop up."

Ray Suarez, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, decried the lack of cooperation and Dr. Berger's unconcealed hostility toward the union.

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