Is the Baltimore County schools flap over a $5 million no-bid technology contract really an attempt to do in Superintendent Stuart Berger once and for all?
The man who's taking the heat -- and generating some of it -- says so.
"I think that's exactly what's going on," Dr. Berger said this week, defending the more than 70 trips that school system employees took courtesy of Educational Management Group Inc., an educational
technology company seeking a three-year school contract.
"Almost everything we try to do is criticized. This is another attempt," he said. "But it's the wrong issue. I have never been given anything by EMG."
Although it has smoldered for some time, the EMG controversy has flared as Dr. Berger enters the final year of his four-year contract and as the air swirls with resignation and buyout rumors.
Some board members are obviously concerned about the EMG-sponsored trips to Arizona and Florida, and they have asked a county attorney for a report on the extent of the travel, along with the legal and ethical ramifications. By accepting
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airfare, meals and hotel rooms, are school system employees compromising their objectivity about Scottsdale, Ariz.-based EMG's high-tech reference services? Does even the appearance such a conflict compromise the school system?
Board members also have educational questions. Member Robert F. Dashiell asked at last week's meeting whether the schools needed such technology. His colleague, Sanford V. Teplitzky, said the county may have already waited too long to get on the information highway.
But beyond these questions are concerns that allegations of impropriety are being fueled by those who want Dr. Berger out.
"It certainly is being driven by people who have been after him," said school board President Calvin Disney. He conceded, however, that he doesn't know who is spreading information about the school system's involvement with EMG.
"If somebody is using it [the EMG discussion] as a smoke screen to get Dr. Berger, that is a great injustice," Mr. Teplitzky said.
A spokesman for the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, traditionally an opponent of the superintendent, agreed that some Berger foes see this issue as another way to fuel the fires of discontent.
"There are about three elements out there that have not made it a conspiracy but have seen a chance to throw gas on the fire," said TABCO spokesman Terry Zahren.
Another observer sees it differently. "It's a conspiracy of one . . . Stuart Berger," said WBAL radio talk show host Allan Prell, who has spent many shows hammering the superintendent.
"This is all of his own making," Mr. Prell said of EMG and other controversies that have dogged Dr. Berger.
Certainly, EMG is just the latest of many. And, although there were educational considerations in all of the controversies during the past three years, they were often intensified by what one elementary school principal called "the Stuart Berger factor."
With varying degrees of intensity, these issues have brought together often diverse segments of the Baltimore school community, usually against Dr. Berger:
* Gifted and talented programs. Attempts to evaluate and change these highly touted programs brought Dr. Berger into one of his first confrontations with county parents. In late 1992, nearly 1,200 parents gathered at Loch Raven High School in a rough-and-tumble session that produced more heat than light.
* Inclusion. Moving hundreds of disabled students out of special education centers and into neighborhood schools angered even more parents, and is still the defining issue of Dr. Berger's superintendency.
* Magnet schools. Initially hailed as an innovation that would bring choice to county students and ease racial imbalances, the popular and high-profile programs ran into trouble during last fall's county elections and this year's budget process. Several board members tried to stop previously approved programs, but they were outvoted and the programs are progressing, along with the development of a strategic plan for future magnets.
Berger watchers have labeled many of these flare-ups as the last in the incendiary superintendency and repeatedly have predicted his demise.
But Dr. Berger hangs on.
"I don't think they have hit it this time," he said of the EMG reports. "I feel very comfortable about EMG. They see this as a very good account. They want to make money."
He added, "I have no interest in having my contract bought out. I have no interest in not being here."