Berger could choose other systems to lead


It was the calm before the storm last week in Baltimore County schools. Superintendent Stuart Berger was out of town while the media and talk show hosts, long since referring to Dr. Berger as "embattled," speculated about his future.

The school board's annual evaluation of the superintendent is in the works (though slightly delayed), and three school board members need to be appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

All of which leads to much excitement on the "Berger Watch." Has he already been given his marching orders? Will Nancy S. Grasmick, state school superintendent, return to her native Baltimore County to succeed him?

Dr. Berger isn't saying, but the bet here is that Dr. Berger, smarter than the average bear, will wait until he knows for sure that he lacks the support to earn a second four-year term. (His first term expires in a year.)

If that happens, he'll announce his retirement.

And if he wants to be, he'll be hired immediately as school chief in another urban or large suburban school system.

Why? Because a firing and a negative report card from his board will have little to do with Dr. Berger's future. They might even help.

There's a severe shortage of superintendents willing to take on the monumental task of running urban schools.

Unlike his predecessor, Robert Y. Dubel, Dr. Berger won't retire after a long, distinguished career in one system. He's the classic kamikaze superintendent.

He'll have plenty of opportunities. New York is open again. The city has lost four recent superintendents who have, as the New Yorker put it this month, "in reverse order, quit, been sent packing by a vote of the Board of Education, filled in as a temp and died after little more than a year in office."

The most recent school chief, Ramon C. Cortines, scrawled "No regrets!" at the bottom of his resignation letter. The New Yorker suggested that maybe the city needs "the sort of unsinkable character who scoffs at the idea of the impossible." That description more closely fits Walter G. Amprey, Dr. Berger's counterpart in Baltimore City, than it does Dr. Berger. Dr. Amprey has been on New York City's "short list" before; a safe bet would be that he'll be on it again by the end of the summer.

(It often helps to be on someone else's short list and to have it known where you're currently employed. A year ago, once it became known he was a candidate in New York, Dr. Amprey got a big raise and a contract renewal through 1998. The superintendent knows full well that if he survives that long, it will be something of a miracle.)

Detroit's superintendency may be open soon. The job has beat down a succession of superintendents who have fallen victim to virulent politics. The most recent Detroit chief, David Snead, is already in trouble; he's trying to expand the central bureaucracy.

Then there's Philadelphia, to which David Hornbeck, another kamikaze, traveled from Baltimore last year full of ambitious plans to rescue another failing urban system. He told people here before he left that he knew his time was short, that his reform ideas would meet the buzz saw quickly. In effect, he had to strike before the entrenched interests in the City of Brotherly Love knew what was happening.

Right on cue, his reform plans are under heavy fire from established forces in Philadelphia, not to mention a state judge.

There are numerous reasons why running an urban or big suburban district is so tough. One of them is that politicians and others expect short-term miracles. But if big-city school systems are to be turned around -- none has been yet, and all are in trouble -- it will probably take a decade or more. No city superintendent who is a reformer has such luxury.

Other reasons are not so obvious. Superintendents and most school boards are expected to be politically neutral. But this means that when they stir up major constituencies -- as Stuart Berger has done in Baltimore County -- they can't rely on solid political support.

Kamikaze superintendents are more numerous these days, but they have appeared from time to time in the family trees of city schools.

Twenty-one years ago, Mayor William Donald Schaefer fired Superintendent Roland N. Patterson, who had come from Seattle with ambitious reform plans that upset much of the Baltimore establishment. To do the deed, Mr. Schaefer appointed what amounted to a kamikaze school board president -- the late Norman Ramsey -- who resigned from the post as soon as the superintendent was gone.

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