Stuart David Berger, the new Baltimore County school superintendent, says he doesn't expect to turn the county's school system upside down when he takes over in July, despite his reputation as a controversial change-maker in school systems where he has served.
Dr. Berger, 47, flew in from Wichita, Kan., yesterday to attend a news conference at which school board President Rosalie Hellman announced his appointment. He told reporters and community members the situation in Wichita that resulted in a stormy term as school superintendent was "very, very different" from the one in Baltimore County.
The Wichita school board "wanted change and they wanted it very rapidly," he said.
The changes he makes in Baltimore County, he said, will be "within the confines of what the board wants. . . . I certainly have some strong views of things. . . . If that's what you define as controversial, then I probably accept it."
But some who have worked for Dr. Berger before say school employees here are in for a shock.
"My advice to educators in Baltimore County is this: Hold on! You're going to be on a roller coaster," said Jack Patterson, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association. "Everyone from custodians to the assistant superintendent is going to know there's a new guy in town."
Mr. Berger served as Frederick County school superintendent from 1981 to 1987.
He described Dr. Berger's leadership style as "intimidating," "iron-fisted" and "extremely demanding."
"His first name is 'change,' " Mr. Patterson said. "He'll shake things up, transfer people involuntarily, and do it with an attitude that says, 'If you don't like it, you can leave.' "
State Sen. Janice Piccinini, D-Balto. Co., former president of both the county and the state teachers' associations, said she considered Dr. Berger "a disaster."
"He was driven out of Frederick County and he was driven out of Wichita," she said.
Ms. Piccinini predicted thatcounty teachers will be lining up to take early retirement rather than work for him. When she was president of the state teachers' association, "We told non-tenured teachers not to go to Frederick."
Dr. Berger said he hoped to learn more about the Baltimore County school system before he discussed specific changes he might implement. But he did say he agreed with the board's concerns over the county's changing demographics and how minority students' needs could be better addressed.
"I would hope . . . that we would be able to find some ways to help youngsters who have not succeeded as much as we would have hoped they would," he said. "I believe every child can learn, but not the same way, and not in the same day."
Despite the state's and county's current financial problems, Dr. Berger said he is confident of his ability to make improvements.
Dr. Berger will succeed Robert Y. Dubel, who leaves the post June 30 after 16 years.
Many school officials and members of county organizations attended yesterday's news conference to get their first look at the man who will head their school system for at least the next four years.
Ed Veit, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said Dr. Berger's controversial reputation "doesn't concern me."
"It still boils down to one teacher in a classroom with about 25 kids and that's where the rubber hits the road," he said. "I think the thing to impress upon almost everyone is that this is a great school system, and if he can make it better, we're all pulling for him."
"I certainly like his philosophy that all students can't learn the same in the same setting," said Michael Gimbel, director of the county's Office of Substance Abuse.
Memories of Dr. Berger during his tenure in Frederick County were mixed.
In 1987, Dr. Berger sued the Frederick News-Post for what he claimed was a libelous story. News-Post Managing Editor Mike Powell said the story was "a six-paragraph item about some routine administrative matter. He sued us for libel, we filed our response, and the case was immediately thrown out of court. I never knew why he went to all that trouble over such an unimportant story." Despite the suit, Mr. Powell said, "I thought [Dr. Berger] was very good at his job, and I still do. He's an energizer, the kind of person you bring in to change things around. . . . He's not the type to sit back and be a caretaker."
Bob Douglas, who struck up a friendship with Dr. Berger when both were taking night classes at the University of Maryland Law School during the mid-1980s, praised him for his enthusiasm and "incredible energy."
Offering an example of that energy, Mr. Douglas, who is now a trial lawyer, recalled how Dr. Berger made the two-hour round trip from Frederick to Baltimore three nights a week for four years, to attend law classes that lasted four hours. And each night of classes followed a full day's work at the Frederick County education office.
Still, Mr. Douglas acknowledged that some will be threatened by Dr. Berger's aggressive demeanor.
Ron Young, the mayor of Frederick from 1974 to 1990, criticized Dr. Berger for being "very weak in public relations," adding, "I didn't think he was good for the [Frederick County] school system. He liked to shake up the community and didn't care how much he did it."
Mr. Young, who now works for the state, recounts a time a few years ago when he attended a National League of Cities conference. He says he ran into some people from Wichita and said, "Oh, you have our old school superintendent."
"Yes," the Wichita people replied. "And do you want him back?"
That question probably would get a "yes" from Marge Warner, an employee in the treasurer's office of the North Olmsted, Ohio, school district, which Dr. Berger ran from 1978 to 1981. Ms. Warner said she regarded her former boss as "the greatest guy, a brilliant man, so straightforward."
"I know [Dr. Berger] has a bad reputation among some people, but maybe those are people who just don't like change. There are a lot of people like that who don't want their apple carts upset, but sometimes that's what's needed. And listen, he's the guy who can do it, too."