As a certain radio talk-show host in town could attest, merely mentioning the name of Baltimore County School Superintendent Stuart D. Berger is enough to produce a lively discussion.
It has been this way since the brash and outspoken school chief arrived in Towson three years ago and began implementing long overdue reforms of the county school system.
Lately, Dr. Berger's job security is a hot topic of talk among county residents. The speculation can only increase with the news that the local school board is in an unusual hurry to complete its annual evaluation of the superintendent, who has one year left on the four-year contract he signed in 1992.
As the board members prepare their analysis of Dr. Berger's performance, they certainly can't fault him for ignoring the mission he was hired to carry out. Using the vision statement drafted several years ago by the board and the community, the superintendent has given Baltimore County a school system much more attuned to the changing needs of a suburban jurisdiction that increasingly resembles the city it envelops.
Many of the so-called "reforms" introduced by Dr. Berger -- such as magnet schools, inclusion for special education students, all-day kindergarten and school breakfasts -- have long been standard programs in public systems throughout the United States. In conservative Baltimore County, though, some residents regard them as beachheads established by an advancing enemy.
Indeed, the newness of the innovations would have been sufficient to earn detractors for any superintendent armed with such an agenda. But this superintendent has opened himself to particularly heated criticism with a damn-the-torpedoes style devoid of the niceties of public relations.
The resultant anger has been focused on Dr. Berger, and now he is more known by the public than a school superintendent should be. Even his supporters have reluctantly begun to worry aloud that education issues in the county won't receive the appropriate attention so long as the primary issue remains Stuart Berger.
July 1 is the official deadline for the school board's evaluation of the superintendent. The board's haste to finish a task that is often put off until late summer or early autumn would seem to indicate that Dr. Berger's job status will soon be resolved, one way or another. Whatever their final decision, the board members must maintain the forward-looking vision that spoke of "great expectations" for the schools.
There can no going back to the system as it existed before the Berger era.