Balto. Co. schools face 1 constant change

June 25, 1995|By Mary Maushard and Larry Carson | Mary Maushard and Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writers

For months, attention has swirled around Stuart Berger and his future as Baltimore County school superintendent. But whether the brash, sometimes arrogant, Dr. Berger stays another year, another term or only a few more weeks, county schools will continue to change.

It is inevitable, because of drastic shifts in the county's demographics, economics and politics, and because of differences in the students coming to the county's 158 schools, say school system observers and those involved in the public debate.

It also is overdue.

"We've seen more quickly changes that should have occurred in the last 10 years," said Emily Wolfson, who has been active in school affairs for more than 35 years. "The department of education has had to do a quick catch-up. There was no real preparation for urbanization."

And though some county residents resist the idea of urban trappings in their suburban sanctuary, change in Baltimore County cannot be denied:

* Even as burgeoning enrollments bring 3,000 to 4,000 new students to county schools each year, intensified competition for tax dollars had forced public officials to face unpleasant choices such as paying for more police officers or more teachers.

* The school population is ever more diverse, with the percentage of black youngsters growing each year and the number of youngsters from low-income families on the rise.

* With industrial jobs diminishing and technology flourishing, students need a broader education than in previous generations.

* The county's population is shifting toward senior citizens, and a smaller percentage of households have children under 18.

* A once-trusting relationship between elected county officials and the appointed school board and its superintendent has changed in the past decade, leading to frequent confrontations.

"Some people are circling the wagons to protect something that doesn't exist anymore," said Mrs. Wolfson -- namely, a largely white, middle-class, suburban district unfettered by the problems of city schools. "I do think there is a reluctance to see the changes."

Although Dr. Berger has a year left in his four-year contract, rumors persist that he will not be around to finish it.

The school board is close-mouthed about its intentions, saying only that it will know more in a few weeks, after the superintendent's annual evaluation.

Meanwhile, some county council members continue to say that Dr. Berger must go.

This spring, under the leadership of Council Chairman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, the council cut $4.4 million from the school budget, lambasted the schools for not being accountable, and threatened to seek more control over the budget and the board.

Relations have not always been so strained.

Donald P. Hutchinson said that during his term as county executive from 1978-1986, he talked frequently with former superintendent Robert Y. Dubel, including him in his regular department head meetings.

"I had a good relationship with Bob Dubel," Mr. Hutchinson said.

The close relationship between executive and superintendent broke down in later years, with the change in personalities and tighter budgets.

The next executive, Dennis F. Rasmussen, tried unsuccessfully to wrest control of school board appointments from the governor after he feuded with Dr. Dubel over the education budget.

And tensions continued after Roger B. Hayden took office in 1990, partly because of difficult times brought on by a recession.

The current County Council maintains that it drilled school administrators and whacked the budget in the name of accountability.

However, it is no secret that council members were livid about a $10 million insurance fund that both the council and the schools claimed as their own.

Also, it is almost impossible to talk about school upheaval without mentioning Dr. Berger's shoot-from-the-hip style, which often gets him in trouble.

"Stuart Berger has no idea how to communicate with anybody," Mr. Hutchinson said. "He has not one iota of an idea."

xTC "Dr. Berger's demeanor and approach to change has resulted in hostility to him," said state Sen. Michael Collins, Eastside Democrat and retired Kenwood High School teacher.

Through all of this, however, the county's commitment to education has not changed, observers say.

"Education is still the most important thing we do in this county," said state Sen. Paula Hollinger, a Democrat who represents the northwest county.

Still, there are more county residents without a direct link to the schools.

In 1990, 67 percent of county households had no children under 18, up from 62 percent in 1980. In 1960, only 36 percent of county families did not have children under 18, according to census figures provided by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

"I think the problem primarily is the aging of Baltimore County," Mr. Collins said. "We have a great need for infrastructure and people needing more services."

These needs compete with schools for county tax dollars that have not increased recently.

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