The Stuart Berger who made his first visit to The Sun's editorial board last July brimmed with energy, candor and self-deprecating wit -- all qualities too often lacking in the newsmakers who come to be grilled on the fourth floor of 501 North Calvert Street.
His impression on the board members? He wowed us, frankly. If the guy had been a movie, we would have given him four stars and several thumbs up.
Dr. Berger, the superintendent of Baltimore County public schools, recently paid another call on the editorial board. But somehow the sequel just didn't compare to the original.
This time around, he looked a little down and admitted to feeling "exhausted." He sounded defensive, even hinting he would resign if he is harshly criticized in a forthcoming report from an independent task force set up by the county school board. And (( after he's through in Baltimore County, he said, "I will never take another superintendency."
He also owned up to some mistakes, primarily:
* Underestimating the resistance Baltimore Countians would have to him and the ideas he was hired to implement -- ideas, by the way, drawn up in a 80-page booklet near the end of the tenure of the previous superintendent, Robert Dubel.
* Getting "out-hustled" (his word) by the Teachers Association of Baltimore County as each side tried to put the prevailing spin on Dr. Berger and the school reforms.
* And "blowing it" (his phrase again) by announcing inclusion plans for special-education students without adequately selling the concept to parents and teachers.
This apparent unwillingness to appreciate PR as much as the three Rs is the Achilles heel of Stuart Berger. He readily acknowledges this flaw in himself, and yet he maintains his personal make-up prevents him from being as patient and diplomatic as he should be at times.
His belief in immediate education reforms in Baltimore County seems wholly sincere and well-meaning. He is genuinely adamant that repairs to the school system not be put off until they'd be too late to do any real good, as he argues has happened in Prince George's County.
He's probably correct in these judgments. At the same time, he appears clueless as to how the sweeping changes he represents should be packaged and peddled. One upshot is his unofficial first name, courtesy of the news and headline writers: "Embattled."
This cluelessness is maddening to people who admire Dr. Berger and his agenda, including some of us on The Sun's editorial staff.
During his recent visit to our office, for example, I twice asked him to spell out what he sees as the areas most in need of improvement in a school system he often describes as imperfect. In other words, I wanted to hear him articulate why he thought Stuart Berger was in this particular job at this particular time -- something school officials have not yet done properly.
It was a softball question, a deliberate fat pitch for him to hit out of the park. Instead, both times he merely fouled it off, beginning to answer but then suddenly switching to another topic. Here was his chance to toot his own horn, to point out his accomplishments, to brag about non-letter grading, magnet schools, all-day kindergarten, advances for minority students, site-based management, the school breakfast program, inclusion, alternative schools and more. He missed the chance.
The irony here, of course, is that Dr. Berger requires that his principals be able to explain the school system's new vision to the public -- while the man at the head of the whole operation falls disappointingly short of that standard himself.
To be sure, the controversy is not all the doing of Dr. Berger. He has had a lot of help from unreasonable parents, opportunistic politicians and contentious TABCO leaders.
However, his oft-stated wish that all the concerned parties develop a better sense of humor shows he doesn't comprehend how seriously taxpayers take the education of their children. A sense of humor would be more appropriate if the product in question were sneakers or TV sets. But when it comes to how their kids are schooled, even people as witty as Dr. Berger become deadly serious.
Why that notion should be lost on someone who cares as much about children and education as Dr. Berger does is a mystery.
The Sun still has editorial writers who like Stuart Berger and his ideas. We only wish we felt the same about the way he presents
Patrick Ercolano is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer for Baltimore County.