The Baltimore County school board last night elected bank executive Alan Leberknight as its president and announced a high-level task force to look into two controversies that have brought it intense criticism: the transfer of handicapped students to neighborhood schools and the demotion or transfer of 40 principals and assistants by Superintendent Stuart Berger.
Mr. Leberknight, 51, president of the Bank of Baltimore and a former high school teacher, succeeds Rosalie Hellman, who recently finished her third term as president.
Mrs. Hellman said she had decided to step down long before the current controversies arose, but she conceded that she has been a lightning rod for public anger in recent months. She is expected to remain on the nine-member panel until her term expires in 1995. Calvin Disney was re-elected as vice president.
About 250 people attended last night's meeting, which was moved at the last minute to Cockeysville Middle School to accommodate the expected crowd of angry teachers, parents and community leaders.
Despite efforts by the Teachers Association of Baltimore County to turn out members, the crowd was only half as large as the one two weeks ago at a hearing on school issues at Loch Raven High School. But it was far larger than the handful of citizens who attended board meetings in less troubled times.
In remarks to his colleagues and the audience, Mr. Leberknight said the special task force would "look at the special education debate, the reassignment of long-tenured educators, and specific disagreements with the superintendent -- all of which were issues expressed at the Loch Raven meeting and in other forums."
However, he was unequivocal in his support for Dr. Berger, who was hired by the board a year ago with a mandate to carry out changes.
"The board is confident it hired a superintendent with the vision and abilities to carry out our published mission," he said. "The board remains confident that our superintendent is the right man in the right place at the right time."
The task force will look into two items that have brought public attack and report back by Aug. 10. One issue is a decision to move hundreds of handicapped children from special education centers to neighborhood schools, often against parents' wishes.
The other is Dr. Berger's demotion or reassignment of dozens of principals and their assistants -- many veterans of 20 years or more in the system. The board said the task force would look into allegations that those actions were retaliation for expressions of dissent or possibly the result of age discrimination.
The task force will include Donald P. Hutchinson, a former county executive; Susan P. Leviton, an association professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and a longtime children's advocate; former Circuit Judge James S. Sfekas; Martha A. Smith, president of Dundalk Community College; Freeman A. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County; and Sanford V. Teplitzky, president of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
But creation of the task force wasn't enough to satisfy members of the county's legislative delegation, who met with board members at school department headquarters before the regular meeting last night.
Peppered by angry constituents, the legislators asked for an investigation by the state superintendent of schools and requested that the board hold off approval of Dr. Berger's personnel moves until that investigation is complete.
Sen. Vernon F. Boozer, noted that county lawmakers are now under pressure to introduce legislation that would create an elected school board, replacing the current system of appointments by the governor.
While he does not favor an elected board, he said it could happen when the legislature convenes in January if the current board does not alleviate the public outcry. The board eventually approved a variety of appointments and transfers, although it was impossible to tell immediately whether it held off on the so-called "hit list" of administrators slated for demotion or transfer.
The board also heard but deferred action on a proposal to start Montessori programs for preschoolers in six elementary schools in September 1994. Montessori programs are based on the theories of Maria Montessori, an Italian-born psychiatrist and teacher who developed a system of preschool and elementary education that emphasizes the individual child's initiative and creativity.
Members were particularly skeptical of a proposal to charge middle and upper-income parents $1,400 tuition for preschoolers the special Montessori programs. Lower-income parents would not be charged, and the fees would end when student reached kindergarten.
Youngsters in Montessori programs are grouped by age and stay with the same teacher for three years, moving through skills and materials at their own pace. The teachers are considered "directors" who react to the individual needs of each child, rather than leaders who present a standardized curriculum, according to Karen Snyder, spokeswoman for the Montessori Society of Central Maryland.
While most Montessori programs are in private schools, there are public Montessori programs in about 140 schools in 85 districts around the country. Among them are programs in Prince George's County, the District of Columbia and Arlington, Va., said Dennis Shapiro, editor and publisher of the Public School Montessorian of Minneapolis.
The board also approved a 1994-1995 calendar that starts classes Sept. 8, after Labor Day and the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana. Because of the late start, there will be a shortened spring break. The board chose that calendar, developed by a committee that included parents, over a staff plan, backed by Dr. Berger, that would have started school before Labor Day.
The new school board president said he regrets the turmoil caused by changes within the system and the ensuing communication problems.
"The board has not, overall, communicated as much as we should have," Mr. Leberknight said yesterday.
In an earlier interview, he said that he was "both excited and disappointed" about the school year that ended June 18. "My excitement is that we are really into some good things. I truly believe we are into whatever history will call the next industrial revolution. We have to adapt to it. Education is supposed to educate people for the environment they are going to go to work in."
"I'm disappointed," he added, "that we don't have more people throughout the county understanding one another. I have confidence that next year we will get better and that all of us will improve out communication skills.
Mr. Leberknight has two children, one a graduate of county schools and the other a junior at Dulaney High. He taught for five years, four of them at Overlea High, before pursuing a career in banking. He also coached baseball and football at Overlea and has been a soccer coach for the last eight years.
"I love coaching," he said. "It keeps me in the real world."