Balto. Co. schools face 1 constant change


For months, attention has swirled around Stuart Berger and his future as Baltimore County school superintendent. But whether the brash, sometimes arrogant, Dr. Berger stays another year, another term or only a few more weeks, county schools will continue to change.

It is inevitable, because of drastic shifts in the county's demographics, economics and politics, and because of differences in the students coming to the county's 158 schools, say school system observers and those involved in the public debate.

It also is overdue.

"We've seen more quickly changes that should have occurred in the last 10 years," said Emily Wolfson, who has been active in school affairs for more than 35 years. "The department of education has had to do a quick catch-up. There was no real preparation for urbanization."

And though some county residents resist the idea of urban trappings in their suburban sanctuary, change in Baltimore County cannot be denied:

* Even as burgeoning enrollments bring 3,000 to 4,000 new students to county schools each year, intensified competition for tax dollars had forced public officials to face unpleasant choices such as paying for more police officers or more teachers.

* The school population is ever more diverse, with the percentage of black youngsters growing each year and the number of youngsters from low-income families on the rise.

* With industrial jobs diminishing and technology flourishing, students need a broader education than in previous generations.

* The county's population is shifting toward senior citizens, and a smaller percentage of households have children under 18.

* A once-trusting relationship between elected county officials and the appointed school board and its superintendent has changed in the past decade, leading to frequent confrontations.

"Some people are circling the wagons to protect something that doesn't exist anymore," said Mrs. Wolfson -- namely, a largely white, middle-class, suburban district unfettered by the problems of city schools. "I do think there is a reluctance to see the changes."

Although Dr. Berger has a year left in his four-year contract, rumors persist that he will not be around to finish it.

The school board is close-mouthed about its intentions, saying only that it will know more in a few weeks, after the superintendent's annual evaluation.

Meanwhile, some county council members continue to say that Dr. Berger must go.

This spring, under the leadership of Council Chairman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, the council cut $4.4 million from the school budget, lambasted the schools for not being accountable, and threatened to seek more control over the budget and the board.

Relations have not always been so strained.

Donald P. Hutchinson said that during his term as county executive from 1978-1986, he talked frequently with former superintendent Robert Y. Dubel, including him in his regular department head meetings.

"I had a good relationship with Bob Dubel," Mr. Hutchinson said.

The close relationship between executive and superintendent broke down in later years, with the change in personalities and tighter budgets.

The next executive, Dennis F. Rasmussen, tried unsuccessfully to wrest control of school board appointments from the governor after he feuded with Dr. Dubel over the education budget.

And tensions continued after Roger B. Hayden took office in 1990, partly because of difficult times brought on by a recession.

The current County Council maintains that it drilled school administrators and whacked the budget in the name of accountability.

However, it is no secret that council members were livid about a $10 million insurance fund that both the council and the schools claimed as their own.

Also, it is almost impossible to talk about school upheaval without mentioning Dr. Berger's shoot-from-the-hip style, which often gets him in trouble.

"Stuart Berger has no idea how to communicate with anybody," Mr. Hutchinson said. "He has not one iota of an idea."

xTC "Dr. Berger's demeanor and approach to change has resulted in hostility to him," said state Sen. Michael Collins, Eastside Democrat and retired Kenwood High School teacher.

Through all of this, however, the county's commitment to education has not changed, observers say.

"Education is still the most important thing we do in this county," said state Sen. Paula Hollinger, a Democrat who represents the northwest county.

Still, there are more county residents without a direct link to the schools.

In 1990, 67 percent of county households had no children under 18, up from 62 percent in 1980. In 1960, only 36 percent of county families did not have children under 18, according to census figures provided by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

"I think the problem primarily is the aging of Baltimore County," Mr. Collins said. "We have a great need for infrastructure and people needing more services."

These needs compete with schools for county tax dollars that have not increased recently.

County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder conceded that someday "we may have to raise taxes" to accommodate the new students streaming into county schools and meet the rest of the county's needs. But not yet, the Fullerton Democrat said.

However, money is not the answer, Council Chairman Gardina said.

"I don't think . . . the solutions to what ails the education system is directly correlated to dollars being spent," he said, without elaborating. "The county can actually provide better education with less dollars."

Some of the Berger-instituted changes have been praised for dealing with current problems.

For instance, Mr. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, cited magnet programs as an answer to segregated and crowded schools.

By offering students with common interests the opportunity to attend a magnet program of their choice, more white students are going into schools with largely black enrollments.

The school system also is filling seats in underused buildings, instead of adding more schools to accommodate the increasing number of students.

Dr. Berger is "at least trying to do innovative things," and stay ahead of problems, said Mr. Hutchinson.

Mrs. Wolfson cited Dr. Berger's interest in early childhood programs -- especially classes for 3- and 4-year-olds and all-day kindergarten -- as a way to help youngsters from disadvantaged homes to improve their language skills before they get to first grade.

"We had a system that served our dominant population well," she said. "I don't know how well our system served the disadvantaged in years past.

"When you live in Sparks, it's very difficult to understand Woodmoor Elementary School and its students and their needs," she added, to illustrate the geographic and demographic gulfs in such a large county. Woodmoor, inside the Beltway on the urbanized west side of the county, is a long drive from the largely rural Sparks community in north county.

Some people around the county also are rankled by a change that is easy to grasp: what's being taught, and how.

Instruction in 1995 does not look, or sound, the same as it did even a few years ago. This is the result of several phenomena, including state Department of Education's standards and changing needs of the work force.

"Most people are more comfortable with what they did when they were kids," Mrs. Wolfson said. "They say: 'Reading and writing were good enough for me.' "

But the same industrial jobs no longer exist, and the same preparation is not enough.

"Everybody must be computer literate," she said. "The youngster who pumps gas has got to work the computer."

And many county children today have to overcome slow starts, unhealthy home lives and society's temptations to stay in school and profit.

"People can talk about when they went to school," said Gwendolyn B. Tisdale, a school activist and former board member. "But I didn't have to deal with drugs and I didn't have to hear about all the ills of society that are constantly being thrown at our kids today.

"It's tough. These are very different times."

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