Back to basics for Baltimore County schools

Recently I attended a memorial mass for Richard “Dick” Barranger, a giant in the history of the Baltimore County Public Schools. His son, Father Joseph Barranger, said the mass and, during the sermon, spoke beautifully about Dick’s 39-year tenure in the county school system.

As I looked around the room I saw Robert Dubel, a former superintendent of this school system; Don Mohler, a long-time educator in Baltimore County and now the acting county executive; Evelyn Chatmon who attended segregated schools in Baltimore County and rose up to lead both the southeast and southwest areas of the school system during her tenure; and John Smeallie, a former deputy superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education and a long time Baltimore County Public Schools employee.

While surveying this congregation of retired administrators, my mind flashed to recent topics in the news: former county superintendent Dallas Dance being jailed; the state superintendent’s rejection of his replacement, Verletta White; arguments among county school board members about contracts from vendors; The Sun endorsing in the school board race; politicians demanding greater accountability, and many other issues that, I believe, negatively impacted the school system.

I started my career in Baltimore County in 1977. Mr. Dubel had just finished the first year of a 16-year tenure as the superintendent. He surrounded himself with career educators who had grown up in the Baltimore County Public Schools and clearly understood the needs of students and teachers. Among those that he appointed to help lead the system were Nancy Grasmick, who would go on to become the first female state school superintendent and one of the longest serving, and Anthony “Tony” Marchione, who would become a county schools superintendent himself in 1995, after Stuart Berger was ousted from the position. There was a clear curriculum for students from grades K-12. Teachers not only knew what to teach, but they had the resources to ensure success. The Baltimore County Schools curriculum was used by other systems in Maryland and beyond.

When challenges arose, including reduction in force and budgetary issues, Mr. Dubel and his staff handled them in a professional and efficient manner. I remember clearly as a young principal receiving a “frugality letter” from Mr. Dubel outlining what needed to be done in each school and office to ensure the budget was balanced.

When I attended Board of Education meetings in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, I felt that the appointed members of this body had done their homework, worked for consensus and always had the best interests of the students in mind. There were certainly disagreements. However, those disagreements were handled in a civil and professional manner. This civility clearly changed when Stuart Berger became the superintendent. While I had the utmost respect for Mr. Berger and embraced many of the changes he was implementing — magnet schools, breakfast programs, changing the nature of both special education and gifted programs — there is no question that civility was lost as exemplified by Mr. Berger once having to climb out a window with a police escort to avoid angry parents.

People my age are often guilty of looking back and thinking of the past as “the good old days.” Things change. Baltimore County Public Schools continues to grow (now well over a 100,000 students), students are more transient, there is greater poverty, and the system is more diverse than it was during my own 30-year tenure in the school system.

Still, I believe the basics of a good system remain the same, including: a strong curriculum, principals who have a strong instructional base, community outreach to ensure parents are cognizant of what their children are learning, and politicians who work with the school system to properly fund its inherent and complex needs.

Most important, however, is having great leadership at the top of the system. I don’t think we will ever see the likes of Robert Dubel again. However, hiring from within the system would be a great start. Verletta White fits that bill and deserves a chance.

To the Board of Education: Stop your bickering and show leadership. To the politicians: Stop talking about education and provide the fiscal support needed to run the school system. To The Baltimore Sun: Highlight the great educators who make a difference daily — people like Dick Barranger. To the community: Embrace the school system, be active in schools, join the PTA, support your child’s teacher and be activists for the proper support of education.

After all, these are your good old days.

H. Scott Gehring is a former area superintendent Baltimore County Public Schools; his email is sgehring@towson.edu.

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