Stuart Berger's fate as head of the Baltimore County schools could be decided as early as next month, board president Paul Cunningham said yesterday.
The board will complete the superintendent's annual evaluation soon and "then we'll have some idea what we're going to do," Mr. Cunningham said, reacting to Dr. Berger's comments this week that he is battle-weary and unwilling to fight for a new contract.
Although most board members agreed that the decision would probably come by fall, Robert F. Dashiell said, "we don't feel rushed or pressured to do anything immediately." He said he understood Dr. Berger's feelings and fatigue, but has "no idea how the board would respond to those feelings."
Board members would not predict whether Dr. Berger, whose four-year contract expires next June, will be offered a new contract.
But County Council Chairman Vincent J. Gardina, a Berger foe, reiterated his impression that it's time to replace the superintendent with someone "more capable of dealing with parents, teachers and elected officials in a more diplomatic way."
Dr. Berger's three years have been marked by change, often met with controversy, in the 99,000-student system. Now, he faces an increasingly hostile council, and a school board whose
changing membership could rob him of supporters.
If Dr. Berger's annual evaluation proceeds as expected, "I anticipate the decision will be made by July 11," the date of a board meeting, said Mr. Cunningham, who is finishing his first year as head of the 12-member board. "I think board members would prefer to get it over now. The intent of the board is to let Dr. Berger know as soon as possible."
The board does not have to decide whether to rehire the superintendent until March 1, under state law.
"We'll do it with all deliberate speed," said board member Sanford V. Teplitzky. "We need to focus less on personality and more on the issues that face us . . . and there's no end of issues."
Mr. Dashiell agreed that personality has gotten in the way of issues. With a style often considered arrogant and abrasive, Dr. Berger has been "much maligned" without just cause, he said.
"From everything I can tell, the actions he took were in line with the board at that time," Mr. Dashiell said. "The things he did were the things he was hired to do. In many cases, the public has, rather than acknowledge their disagreement with some of these objectives, elected to focus on the personality."
Although the past two years have been quieter than Dr. Berger's first year as successor to Robert Y. Dubel, criticism from county officials stoked the fires of controversy this spring. Upset over a $10 million insurance rebate fund and another trust fund they knew nothing about, the county executive and council called for greater accountability from Dr. Berger, his staff and the board.
Some council members again are piqued by Dr. Berger's recommendation and the board's decision this week to continue an early retirement program that the council refused to fund and warned the school system against pursuing.
"I'm disappointed to hear the position Dr. Berger and the board have taken on the early retirement program," said Councilman Louis L. DePazzo. "The council couldn't have made its position BTC any more clear than it did."
Mr. Gardina called the action a slap in the face, smacking of "arrogance on Dr. Berger's part."
Both councilmen said the school board's rejection of their advice would provide ammunition for next year, when the council seeks line-item control of the school budget.
Dr. Berger said he would ask the council to reinstate the $1.6 million in early retirement funds removed from the budget last month. But Mr. Gardina said "the board better think again because there is no way the council will approve that request."
However, Mr. Cunningham said that in a budget of nearly $600 million, he was confident Dr. Berger could fund the program, which does not require money until October.
Despite the council's attitude and public opinion that again prompted hand-lettered anti-Berger signs on some county roads, Berger said he received more than 100 phone calls of support yesterday.
"It was a gratifying day," he said. "I got a number of calls from teachers. Not one bad call."
Douglas B. Riley, his most ardent supporter on the council, said he would hate to see him replaced.
"I've enjoyed working with him," Mr. Riley said. "I agree with most of the changes he has made and I think there is a great deal more he can contribute to Baltimore County."