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Amprey: Under siege but unwavering

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Every day, people call him on the phone, crying. At a school system reception, a guest greets him, deadpan: "You fired my wife." Outgoing employees parade into his life -- visiting, calling, writing, pleading for another chance or help getting another job.

A few ask Walter G. Amprey over and over how he could do this to them, to their families, to their careers -- while accepting a hefty pay raise himself.

In the waning days of Dr. Amprey's third year as Baltimore school superintendent, the protests, criticism and pleas have gone well beyond the 278 employees who got layoff notices.

Still, at the point in his tenure when most urban superintendents lose or quit their jobs, Dr. Amprey says he's attacking the status quo with renewed vigor to do what a string of predecessors failed to do: revive a school system beset by decades of decline.

In a wide-ranging interview last week, the superintendent seemed as unflappable, determined and candid as ever, as he reflected on a crucible year -- the battles, the wrenching reorganization, the exodus of some highly regarded school system veterans.

Often, the 49-year-old schools chief said, he's felt besieged and

more than a little overwhelmed: "You know, folks, things are coming at you from everywhere. I mean, I've felt a few times, like, gee whiz, how do you get this done? I can feel like that 10 times a day."

But never one to despair, Dr. Amprey says, he always stops and takes a longer view. "My overall feeling -- not the daily feeling -- is that this is my life's calling," said Dr. Amprey, a product of Baltimore public schools who began his teaching career in the city. "It's not about the job; it's about what I'm supposed to be doing with my life."

His means to his end, however, have drawn criticism inside and outside North Avenue school headquarters. The most prevalent complaint: He too often acts alone. From making daily decisions to setting major policy, Dr. Amprey often excludes teachers, parents, civic leaders, even top staffers in his administration, and has little tolerance for dissenting views, critics say.

"It's a legitimate concern, and it's been true of me in every leadership position I've been in," said Dr. Amprey, who came to the city superintendent's job after years of administrative positions in Baltimore County. "It's the same way I walk and run. People have to catch up. I have to remember that I've got people with me."

He acknowledges the need to involve others more in decisions, calling it a matter of "balance." Then, almost in the same breath, he defends his leadership style.

"I'm not apologizing for it, because, to be honest with you, it's served me well," he said. "But I do have to spend a lot of time apologizing for it to people who may not understand. . . . I have a tendency to know where I want to go and to try and get that done. Now, sometimes you got to get it done that way because if you don't, you talk it to death."

Some critics question his ability to rebuild schools that have shown little or no improvement in student performance, attendance and dropout rates during his three years.

He speaks constantly of his vision, of creating a new "climate" of higher expectations. But detractors say he has demoralized and alienated some of the very people critical to revitalizing the 113,000-student district, and some question his vision for Baltimore's schools.

"There will always be questions about that," he concedes. "I mean, I've been hearing since I've been here and before I came, 'Where's the school system going?'

"That's a nice, safe question to ask. But you think about it, what's the answer to that? I mean, how can you give a concrete answer to such a broad, all-inclusive question like where's the school system going?"

Begin, he says, by trying to raise expectations, change attitudes, root out incompetence and match the right people with the right jobs.

To that end, as he seeks to move money, authority and accountability for results from headquarters to the schools, Dr. Amprey wants to replace 40 of the 177 principals and appoint three new assistant superintendents. He's devising a much tougher and more frequent evaluation system for administrators from principal up and launching a partnership with the Greater Baltimore Committee to provide intensive management training for new principals.

Recalling past reorganizations -- a ritual for most recent city superintendents -- he says only insisting on much higher standards and more rigorous evaluations will yield lasting results. "There's no sense in us attempting to do this [reorganization] if we are not going to involve some way to make sure the climate in the school works," he said. "That's what my theme is going to be: no excuses.

"Our whole role is to take all the excuses away. . . . That's why principals this year are going to be held accountable and on an ongoing, regular basis, in ways that never happened in the history of this organization before."

But, at school headquarters and beyond, critics say a "brain drain" threatens reform. Dr. Amprey's two deputies, Lillian Gonzalez and Patsy Blackshear -- both appointed with Dr. Amprey as part of an unprecedented troika after competing for the superintendent's job -- resigned after being demoted in the spring. His chief of accountability, Denise Borders, left, as did veteran aide Jacquelyn Hardy. Judson Porter, the longtime finance director who has repeatedly sought more scrutiny of privatization deals with Educational Alternatives Inc., is being moved to a new job, heading the move toward school-based management.

Some critics say privately that the exodus stems in part from Dr. Amprey's insistence on removing or reassigning anyone who questions his "vision," particularly on privatization. He acknowledges that some recent moves had to do with loyalty rather than questions about competence.

Need for unity stressed

"Does everybody have to agree on everything? No, not at all," he said. But as he gestures toward the window of his fourth-floor suite, facing boarded-up houses on North Avenue, he speaks of the need for unity within the school system.

"When you're trying to bring about reform and change, you're fighting a front out there. It's hard to fight on two fronts. I mean, we tried to do it in the second world war. . . . And maybe that's part of the answer to why you see those people change [jobs]."

Change has not come easily.

In recent months, teachers, fellow union members and parents protested layoffs, privatization and Dr. Amprey's raise, then called for his resignation. Students walked out of Patterson High, protesting plans to turn it over to the Hyde School, a Maine boarding school known for strict discipline and "character-building." And a majority of City Council members demanded a halt to expanding the role of for-profit EAI, saying its privatization experiment diverts millions from other schools.

Amid strong opposition -- and no chance of winning approval from state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick -- Dr. Amprey killed the Hyde plan, an attempt to avert state takeover. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke ruled out immediate expansion of EAI's role. And a federal judge further eroded Dr. Amprey's authority, ruling in a decade-old lawsuit over the city's dismal special education record that a court-appointed team must have a say in key staffing decisions above the rank of teacher.

Still, while protests have garnered headlines and sound bites with growing frequency, Dr. Amprey's defenders say a much quieter majority cheers him and welcomes his unflinching insistence on change.

Mayor Schmoke delivered a vote of confidence -- along with a $15,000 raise for Dr. Amprey -- a few weeks ago. The mayor, praising the superintendent's "outstanding work," pushed through a four-year contract raising Dr. Amprey's salary to $140,000 and increasing his annual expense account from $5,000 to $15,000.

The mayor, who faces a re-election challenge next year from council President Mary Pat Clarke, said he wanted to ensure stability and affirm support for Dr. Amprey "while he's making the tough decisions he has to make to improve school performance."

That move brought palpable relief to Dr. Amprey. Last week, he stopped in mid-sentence, as if struck by a revelation, and let out a good laugh as he spoke of his reform plan. "It does come with a superintendent that looks like he may get past three years," he said. "I've gotten past that. I mean, I'm already an old-timer."

The fatter paycheck

But he said news of his long-anticipated raise -- negotiations began just after he withdrew from the race for New York City's top schools post last August -- seemed bittersweet. "As happy as I ought to be about it, I got to live with all this stuff about, 'What a terrible time, you're laying off people when you're getting this contract. . . .'

"But, I mean, I'm not so selfless that I'm not happy. I think it's important. I can see what's going on around the country. I know that there are opportunities [for other superintendent jobs] out there. It's nice to know that. I don't want them, but I can see that."

He sighed, paused and, in a rare moment, seemed relaxed.

"We got to this point," Dr. Amprey said. "Now, the real test is: Will the ship hold together and get through the storm, and is the glue that keeps it together strong enough?"

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