Amprey: Under siege but unwavering

July 19, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Every day, people call him on the phone, crying. At a school system reception, a guest greets him, deadpan: "You fired my wife." Outgoing employees parade into his life -- visiting, calling, writing, pleading for another chance or help getting another job.

A few ask Walter G. Amprey over and over how he could do this to them, to their families, to their careers -- while accepting a hefty pay raise himself.

In the waning days of Dr. Amprey's third year as Baltimore school superintendent, the protests, criticism and pleas have gone well beyond the 278 employees who got layoff notices.

Still, at the point in his tenure when most urban superintendents lose or quit their jobs, Dr. Amprey says he's attacking the status quo with renewed vigor to do what a string of predecessors failed to do: revive a school system beset by decades of decline.

In a wide-ranging interview last week, the superintendent seemed as unflappable, determined and candid as ever, as he reflected on a crucible year -- the battles, the wrenching reorganization, the exodus of some highly regarded school system veterans.

Often, the 49-year-old schools chief said, he's felt besieged and

more than a little overwhelmed: "You know, folks, things are coming at you from everywhere. I mean, I've felt a few times, like, gee whiz, how do you get this done? I can feel like that 10 times a day."

But never one to despair, Dr. Amprey says, he always stops and takes a longer view. "My overall feeling -- not the daily feeling -- is that this is my life's calling," said Dr. Amprey, a product of Baltimore public schools who began his teaching career in the city. "It's not about the job; it's about what I'm supposed to be doing with my life."

His means to his end, however, have drawn criticism inside and outside North Avenue school headquarters. The most prevalent complaint: He too often acts alone. From making daily decisions to setting major policy, Dr. Amprey often excludes teachers, parents, civic leaders, even top staffers in his administration, and has little tolerance for dissenting views, critics say.

"It's a legitimate concern, and it's been true of me in every leadership position I've been in," said Dr. Amprey, who came to the city superintendent's job after years of administrative positions in Baltimore County. "It's the same way I walk and run. People have to catch up. I have to remember that I've got people with me."

He acknowledges the need to involve others more in decisions, calling it a matter of "balance." Then, almost in the same breath, he defends his leadership style.

"I'm not apologizing for it, because, to be honest with you, it's served me well," he said. "But I do have to spend a lot of time apologizing for it to people who may not understand. . . . I have a tendency to know where I want to go and to try and get that done. Now, sometimes you got to get it done that way because if you don't, you talk it to death."

Some critics question his ability to rebuild schools that have shown little or no improvement in student performance, attendance and dropout rates during his three years.

He speaks constantly of his vision, of creating a new "climate" of higher expectations. But detractors say he has demoralized and alienated some of the very people critical to revitalizing the 113,000-student district, and some question his vision for Baltimore's schools.

"There will always be questions about that," he concedes. "I mean, I've been hearing since I've been here and before I came, 'Where's the school system going?'

"That's a nice, safe question to ask. But you think about it, what's the answer to that? I mean, how can you give a concrete answer to such a broad, all-inclusive question like where's the school system going?"

Begin, he says, by trying to raise expectations, change attitudes, root out incompetence and match the right people with the right jobs.

To that end, as he seeks to move money, authority and accountability for results from headquarters to the schools, Dr. Amprey wants to replace 40 of the 177 principals and appoint three new assistant superintendents. He's devising a much tougher and more frequent evaluation system for administrators from principal up and launching a partnership with the Greater Baltimore Committee to provide intensive management training for new principals.

Recalling past reorganizations -- a ritual for most recent city superintendents -- he says only insisting on much higher standards and more rigorous evaluations will yield lasting results. "There's no sense in us attempting to do this [reorganization] if we are not going to involve some way to make sure the climate in the school works," he said. "That's what my theme is going to be: no excuses.

"Our whole role is to take all the excuses away. . . . That's why principals this year are going to be held accountable and on an ongoing, regular basis, in ways that never happened in the history of this organization before."

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