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School chief tires of Balto. Co. battles


Stuart Berger rarely turns his back on a fight. But the battle-weary superintendent concedes that his first term as head of Baltimore County's 99,000-student school system also might be his last.

As he nears the final year of a four-year contract, he faces an increasingly hostile County Council, one that recently cut millions out of next year's school budget. On the changing school board, meanwhile, support for Dr. Berger is uncertain. And the flood of resignation rumors, which triggered a media frenzy at Tuesday night's school board meeting, has started to weigh heavily on him.

"I would not be surprised if [the 1995-1996 school year is] my last year," an almost morose Dr. Berger said this week. "I would not fight to have a second term.

"I'm tired. I'm really tired. If somebody can run this school system better, then he or she should do it."

This is clearly a change of heart for the superintendent, who has frequently said he would like another four-year contract, and at least once vowed a heady fight.

Still, Dr. Berger staunchly denies that he's going away, at least not until his contract expires in June 1996.

The school board never has approached him with an offer to buy out his contract, or threatened to fire him, he said. And, he denied persistent rumors that he is job-shopping around the nation, adding that he has rebuffed offers from head-hunters who have approached him about other superintendent positions.

Recent actions seem to reinforce his intent to stay. At Tuesday's board meeting, he announced administrative changes that in some cases still smack of team-building. And, he and the board united behind the system's early retirement plan -- even though the County Council had opposed such a move and had removed the program's $1.6 million from next year's budget.

Self-described as a change agent, Dr. Berger came to the county from Wichita, Kan., when Robert Y. Dubel retired. The board indicated in its vision statement that it needed to move the schools into a new century.

Among Dr. Berger's innovations are full-day kindergarten, school breakfasts, more than 20 magnet school programs and a management reform that gives principals more power at their schools. His most controversial change was shifting hundreds of students with disabilities from special education centers to neighborhood schools.

Dr. Berger does not deny making mistakes. And he acknowledged that his brash, even arrogant, style often is the fuel that ignites criticism. But, he said, several situations have complicated his tenure.

"I never anticipated the turnover in the school board," he said, referring to the fact that by July 1 only four of the nine members who chose him will remain. "The community is much more conservative than I ever anticipated."

And, "in Wichita, I had my very ardent detractors and my very ardent supporters in the community. Here, I only have the detractors.

"Those people who are in favor of my programs want it done in a charming way. That's impossible."

As usual, school board members were reluctant to comment on Dr. Berger's future employment. But Vice President Calvin Disney did say that "there has been no discussion with him about terminating his contract. There has been no discussion about renewing his contract."

Mr. Disney said the board nearly has completed the superintendent's annual evaluation, which is usually finished around July 1. "He has a contract by law for four years, and there's a reason for that," he said, referring to the rumor and innuendo that has surrounded Dr. Berger for much of his tenure here, and, indeed, throughout his career.

"People just make things up," said Dr. Berger. "This is psychological warfare, and I used to love it. But not anymore. Every night I go home and say to my wife, 'Well, here's today's crop.' That gets old."

As his third school year ends, Dr. Berger has bigger hurdles than negative public sentiment.

Besides the changes among the nine members who hired him, the board is different in other ways. By a change in statute, the board now has 11 members, plus a student member. Also, resignations and retirements have bought new members with little experience, little allegiance and even some antipathy -- though usually veiled -- toward Dr. Berger.

The County Council did not mask its dislike for Dr. Berger and his spending policies this spring when it whacked $4.4 million from the school budget -- the largest school cut in nearly 20 years. Chairman Vincent Gardenia and Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder openly have said they would like Dr. Berger gone.

With this week's decision to continue the retirement program over the council's objections, the disagreement is likely to flair again. However, Dr. Berger is not alone in this fight. The board backed his recommendation on a 9-0 vote, with two members abstaining.

"If this board were to follow the recommendation from the County Council, it would have had a direct and near immediate impact on some of the [teaching] positions the county executive wanted us to fund," said board member Robert F. Dashiell. Faced with a choice of upsetting council members or providing needed education services, he would vote for the services, he added.

How supportive the board will continue to be remains to be seen.

Mr. Disney said he does not think Dr. Berger's reappointment hangs on board members' confidence in him. Rather, "there are some really important things that needed to be done that Stuart Berger has done and some equally important things that need to be done" that the board must determine if he can accomplish.

That's a decision the board must make by March 1996, but probably will resolve sooner, Mr. Disney said. But, "we're not going to go back to where we were," he said.

Dr. Berger would differ. "The community doesn't want us [the school system] to go anywhere," he said. "The status quo will return to Baltimore County in very short order."

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