The line between public and private life Amprey's leadership, image are at stake in wake of abuse charge

News Analysis

September 07, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

For Schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, whose

leadership already is under fire by the state, a recent allegation of domestic abuse poses a dilemma.

Amprey, 51, and his supporters want the issue to be treated as a personal matter, distinct from his performance as the official overseeing the education of city students.

However, a conviction could damage the public's confidence in him. The city's top educator has been a champion of anti-violence and character education programs.

"If Dr. Amprey is found guilty of battery, members of the school board and I would have to sit down and review the situation," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said this week. A conviction, Schmoke said, "would have an impact on his leadership abilities."

Credibility and effectiveness are at stake when a superintendent's personal conduct has public consequences, national authorities on school management and educational leadership said this week.

For Amprey, the problem seems magnified because decisions made long ago blurred the line between his personal and professional lives.

Uncomfortable witnesses

Co-workers and city officials who have been uncomfortable witnesses to the Ampreys' history did not want to be named in this article. But privately, many described numerous occasions in which the couple did not separate public and personal matters.

The superintendent was dating Freda Brown when she was hired in February 1993 to create a counseling and referral program for city school employees. He married her that year.

The teachers union questioned the appearance of a professional conflict, saying members might feel uncomfortable seeking help from the superintendent's wife.

The Ampreys and some school board members insisted then that confidentiality would be maintained, and that there was no conflict. Other officials pointed out that in education, it is relatively common to find spouses in the same school system.

Despite at least two layers of managers between the Ampreys in the workplace hierarchy, some school system employees say they would always see Freda Amprey as the boss's wife.

The Amprey library

The Ampreys' behavior sometimes furthered that view. At a public ceremony in June 1995, he beamed as she christened her department's new $15,000 collection of self-help pamphlets and materials as the "Walter G. Amprey Employee Lending Library."

"Happy adults make happy children," the superintendent said during the festivities. "This program is helping our employees, and it has the best therapist I know leading it -- my wife."

City officials and colleagues at school headquarters say discord in the Amprey marriage became known to them last fall.

For a time, Amprey changed his security procedures at work, enlisting the assistance of school police and other staff, some of whom associated the alarm with his marital discord.

Then, searching for savings to end a $32 million deficit in the school system's nearly $650 million budget, some school officials recommended cutting Freda Amprey's program. It was included a list circulated among key school officials, and leaked to reporters.

When questioned, the officials explained that the program duplicates services available through a citywide counseling service. Even programs dear to the superintendent might have to be cut, said some who were aware of the couple's estrangement.

But the Ampreys reconciled.

The counseling program remained in place because it would help employees who would lose their jobs in budget cuts, officials said at the time.

Now a protective order bars Amprey from contacting his wife at the school system office where she works for him.

Walter Amprey has chosen attorney Paul Mark Sandler to defend him. The lawyer is also working for the city, on a team defending the school system from state allegations of mismanagement.

Private life, public image

fTC Now, as he defends himself against a criminal charge, the superintendent must face the possibility of his private life tarnishing his public image.

A blot on a school chief's record does not automatically doom him. Across the country there have been instances of superintendents weathering bankruptcies and even drunken-driving convictions.

Authorities on school management say the outcome for school chiefs in such cases depends on the standards of the community and on the official's reputation.

"The effectiveness of any superintendent anywhere basically rests on the confidence in him held by the rest of the school system, and the public and leadership of the city," said Michael ++ Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a professional group for big-city school chiefs.

"If the leadership of the city treats this as a private matter until there is a judgment reached elsewhere, then the public ought to retain its confidence in the superintendent," Casserly said.

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