Envisioning Stuart Berger's Future

March 11, 1995|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

Where has Stuart Berger taken the Baltimore County school system? Many people have asked, and tried to answer, that question since Dr. Berger became school superintendent three years ago.

But soon the question on the local education scene will focus as much on Stuart Berger's future as on his past. When his four-year contract expires in 15 months, after a term marked by much transformation and controversy, will he be rehired by a county school board that also has undergone many changes?

Named in early 1992 to succeed Robert Dubel, Stuart Berger came from the Wichita, Kan., superintendency with a reputation as a forceful agent of change. School-board members knew just what they were getting in him. They understood that the long-term vision crafted in 1989 for the school system would be a magnet for criticism (more on magnets later), and that Stuart Berger would willingly implement the vision without undue concern about his public image.

As it turns out, Dr. Berger's lack of image-consciousness has hurt him and some of the initiatives he has introduced. For example, he freely admits that his damn-the-torpedoes approach placing special-education students in regular schools was a mistake. And yet the topic of inclusion in the county, which even inspired an ABC News documentary, hardly registers on the local controversy meter anymore.

Their botched handling of inclusion notwithstanding, Dr. Berger and his aides can point with pride to some overdue breakthroughs -- such as inclusion itself, the magnet-school program (a Berger favorite), non-letter grades for younger students, ending Baltimore County's embarrassing status as the only Maryland jurisdiction not to participate in the federal breakfast program, and a policy revision that lets principals build instructional staffs on the basis of teacher ability rather than seniority.

Does the current school board share this pride? The answer is key to any attempt to handicap Dr. Berger's chances of being rehired.

The nine-member board that chose him in 1992 has changed considerably since then. Of those nine members, three have completed their terms. Moreover, two solid Berger backers on the panel -- former board presidents Rosalie Hellman and Alan M. Leberknight -- will step down this summer.

In the meantime, the board has been expanded by two members, to 11. The upshot is that of the 11 who will decide Stuart Berger's fate, only four will have been in the group that brought him to Baltimore County.

This game of musical chairs doesn't necessarily mean Dr. Berger will be unseated. Some of the newer members have been consistent supporters of the superintendent and the vision statement. But like new bosses who aren't happy with the personnel they've inherited, other recent board appointees are clearly not Stuart Berger fans. Two of them, Mary Katherine Scheeler and Phyllis Ettinger, routinely vote against Berger proposals.

Further evidence of board antipathy to Dr. Berger was a school budget amendment, introduced last week by board member Dunbar Brooks, that would have frozen five new magnet schools, even though the schools had already begun accepting students for admission. With a panicky Dr. Berger watching from the side, the board killed the measure by one vote. Amendment supporters said they simply wanted to slow down the magnet program while its successes and failures could be examined. Some observers nonetheless saw the action as proof that Stuart Berger has fewer friends these days on the county school board.

In a recent interview, Dr. Berger said he wants to be rehired but isn't betting it will happen. However, that doesn't trouble him as much as the politicians, parents and others who talk of ''stabilizing'' the school system, as if it somehow could be

returned to a less complicated era and all the pressures associated with such a large, diverse and rapidly urbanizing jurisdiction could be ignored.

That kind of outlook might work in ''The Brady Bunch Movie,'' but it could spell disaster for Baltimore County. Say this for Stuart Berger: For all his flaws, he appreciates the difficult

challenges facing the county and its school system, and he seems sincere about wanting to meet those challenges. The question is whether the county school board, in its late 1995 alignment, will appreciate Stuart Berger, the vision statement and his performance in carrying it out.

I= Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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