Alan Leberknight speaks softly and weighs his words carefully.
He knows this is not the best of times to be elected president of the Baltimore County school board.
"These last four to six weeks, the environment is very different from what we want," he says. "Things have just exploded."
Few would quarrel with that assessment.
In the past few months, the board has been called haughty, arrogant and uncommunicative. It has been lambasted for hiring a superintendent with a fiery past, who, critics say, also is haughty, arrogant and uncommunicative -- not to mention intimidating and dictatorial.
Disgruntled parents and teachers and weary community leaders have called for the board to resign, for the firing of Superintendent Stuart Berger, or both. Some want the appointed board replaced with an elected panel.
At a recent public hearing, frustrated citizens filled ears and notebooks with six hours of horror stories about demoted administrators, frightened teachers, nonexistent special education programs and an out-of-touch administration.
And last week, just before Mr. Leberknight replaced Rosalie Hellman as board president, the county's state senators told the board it had dragged down a once-fine school system and could no longer be trusted.
"You got to change your attitude . . . and if you don't change your attitude toward parents and teachers, then you got to go," Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, told the board and Dr. Berger.
A better environment
Mr. Leberknight, bank president, parent, soccer coach, former teacher and longtime county resident, doesn't plan on going anywhere. But he says he won't be standing still, either.
"I must try -- we must try to show ourselves to be available to the public, to come out and dialogue with people," says Mr. Leberknight, who has been on the board for three years. "We have to step up the communication process.
"We have to create a better environment."
The 51-year-old president and chief executive officer of the Bank of Baltimore is no stranger to public education.
After graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, he taught for five years, four of them at Overlea High School. He coached baseball and football there.
His sons went to Carroll Manor Elementary School, Cockeysville Middle School and Dulaney High School. His younger son is still at Dulaney.
Despite his demanding schedule, Mr. Leberknight still coaches soccer. This year he had students from four county high schools on his club team.
"I love coaching," he says. "I love teaching. I like to think I do it everyday."
Mr. Leberknight's move out of the classroom was more by happenstance than by design. He says he became fascinated with the business courses he was taking to keep up his teaching certification. Eventually, he got a master's degree in business administration from Loyola College and decided to "see what else I could do with this stuff."
Beginning in banking
In 1972, he went to work for Commercial Credit and moved to Atlanta, Wilmington, Del., and New York before returning Baltimore in 1978 as its regional vice president.
He then moved to Union Trust Co. of Baltimore, which later became Signet Bank/Maryland in a merger. In late 1991, he left for the Bank of Baltimore.
Mr. Leberknight says his management experience amid mergers and tough times in the banking business has prepared him to handle some of the uncertainty in the school system.
He knows about insecurity, he says, and about building trust.
It doesn't happen quickly, but "through a series of actions over time and through showing people we are trying," he says.
The new president performed what may have been the first of those acts at last week's board meeting when he spoke out firmly in favor of a school calendar for 1994-1995 developed by a committee that included parents.
Dr. Berger and the department's staff backed a different calendar that would have started school before Labor Day, a move unpopular with many parents and teachers. The board, under Mr. Leberknight, approved the later starting date the committee had proposed.
"I think it was our intention to get input in our committee and I am very sensitive to that," he told the board. "I am very sensitive to the committee's recommendation."
Although he says his service on the school board shows his commitment to education, Mr. Leberknight didn't covet the presidency.
"There were people who asked me to consider it" when it was obvious that Mrs. Hellman would step down after her third term, he says. "I felt a sense of responsibility.
"I was flattered that people would ask me, and I decided to do it."
His election was uncontested and unanimous and took two minutes. Mrs. Hellman and Mr. Leberknight switched seats at the board table. She handed him the gavel.
Commitment to change
Then, in what he called "the most important talk I've ever made," he reaffirmed the board's commitment to change and improvement and its confidence in Dr. Berger, whom he called "the right man in the right place at the right time."
But to deal with the turmoil, Mr. Leberknight announced a task force to investigate two of the thorniest issues facing the system: changes in special education and the reassignment and demotion of an unusually large number of principals and assistants.
The panel, which conducted its first meeting last night, looked at "specific disagreements with the superintendent."
"I look at this as a way to show the community that we are interested in reviewing the situation," Mr. Leberknight says.
The panel members are former county executive Donald P. Hutchinson; Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County; Susan P. Leviton, a law professor and advocate for families and children; Martha A. Smith, president of Dundalk Community College; Sanford V. Teplitzky, president of the Baltimore Jewish Council; and retired Circuit Judge James S. Sfekas.
They will determine the mechanics of its investigation and report to the board by Aug. 10.
Says Mr. Leberknight: "It will be a public document and we will have to deal with what it says."
A rapidly changing world
The new president says the board remains committed to improving the schools to prepare students for a changing world. And that means continuing changes that were under way even before former superintendent Robert Y. Dubel retired a year ago and was replaced by the fiery Dr. Berger.
"There was never, ever a thought that we wanted to repudiate the past," he says, adding that the schools must keep up.
"Our society is moving very quickly. There's cultural diversity in our county. There's a definite scarcity of economic resources. When you have these events, you don't have any choice but to adapt to them. We are trying honestly and truly . . . to meet the needs of our students."
Some of the furor is the board's fault, he concedes.
"I think we probably have been idealistic," wanting to get on with changes such as site-based management, which gives principals more authority and responsibility for their schools, and the opportunities presented by magnet schools.
"We underestimated what we were into," he says.
Members weren't as well-versed as they should have been on the special-education changes and they misjudged the impact of the administrative shake-up.
"I just wasn't empathetic enough. Maybe I just didn't understand the depths of their concern. Maybe I still don't," he says. But he adds, "I think every member of that board is so much more aware than we were six weeks ago."