Berger finds his niche in the private sector Ousted school chief brokers business deals

November 01, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

He's in the business world now, bouncing among airports five days a week, brokering private services to school districts across the nation. Here, where productivity counts more than making nice, Stuart Berger can get away with being -- well, Stuart Berger.

"It's been economically rewarding," is all the former Baltimore County schools superintendent will say about his earnings, which will fund overseas trips for his five children as Christmas presents this year.

He's got a big new $280,000 house, too -- 12 rooms, four bathrooms, two kitchens, a large front porch adorned with decorative wrought iron, upstairs deck and hot tub, perched on a hill in rolling, leafy Hampton. A new white Mercedes is parked in the driveway.

"The House that Dutch Built," is what he calls the two-story wood and brick structure with a gingerbread feel, named after County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger -- whom he blames for engineering his ouster in August 1995 with a $300,000 buyout.

He's gone, but not really.

Berger, 53, is still here, as a taxpayer and parent, watching events from an uncommon vantage point, living what he and his wife, Debbie, describe as a happy and stress-reduced life -- after 22 years leading six school districts.

"In the private sector you're rewarded for producing, and if you can't you're fired, and I love it," he says. "Unlike the school board, nobody micromanages me."

He's still bouncing off the walls of his office, a cozy room in his home's basement. Still shooting his mouth off. Still irritating those who couldn't control him.

Board leadership? "That's an oxymoron," he says of the current school board. "Where are they going? They have no plan. Their plan is to duck and weave and hope Dutch doesn't get mad at them. They're trying to make sure the status quo remains."

From time to time, when he daydreams while on an airplane, he'll flirt with the idea of running for county executive, just to aggravate Ruppersberger (though he figures he'd get maybe eight votes, including his family's). He even mulls over applying for a school board seat.

Confidentiality lifted

Fourteen months after the board announced a secret agreement to pay Berger to leave -- $150,000 in salary and benefits for the year remaining on his contract and an extra $150,000 -- Berger spoke publicly for the first time about his tenure, the unraveling of his support and the buyout negotiations, which were locked under a confidentiality clause for a year.

Dressed in khaki pants and a red crew neck sweater, on a rare day home between Atlanta and Kansas City, he sat beside his desk with a foot crossed over a knee and rapidly wagging, waving his left hand as he spoke. On the walls hung Berger-inspired editorial cartoons and plaques from three states; nearby stood a poker table, the site of regular games.

"Kathleen!" he'd bellow from time to time, at his daughter, a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, who was falling down on the job of fill-in receptionist. "She's about to get fired," he quipped as the phone kept ringing.

Berger says he doesn't regret the three years spent launching a flurry of reforms -- magnet schools, full-day kindergarten, inclusion of handicapped children in regular classrooms, school-based management and "equity" grants for schools with poorer students -- before being driven out.

"I think I made more of an impact here than anywhere," he said of a string of superintendencies that began at age 29 in his native Ohio and took him to Frederick County and Wichita, Kan., before Baltimore County in 1992.

And he predicts time will show the changes were crucial -- even though they were "way beyond where this community is today."

"Ruppersberger's famous line that drove me nuts is that we need to stabilize the system -- which is the worst thing to do. What he means is, 'Make the adults happy and they will vote for me.'

"There's going to come a time when everything I tried to do, people will say, 'That's what we need to do.' By then it will be impossible. You don't fix it when it's already broken -- things like the continuing disparity between kids who are achieving and kids who are not."

Conflicting views

What happened depends on whom you talk to. Foes say he forced too much change too soon, wielding an iron-fisted management style and readiness to demote those he considered incompetent, instilling fear and low morale among employees.

His champions say he did exactly what the school board wanted -- wake up and modernize a stagnating system with a diversifying student body.

By the time he was forced out, Berger had key enemies among the teachers union, PTA, school board and politicians, who accused him of stonewalling on money matters.

Still, people were infuriated to learn of the secret dealings that produced the pricey buyout, at a time when strained budgets required spending freezes in the classroom.

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