Optimistic under fire Superintendent: Walter G. Amprey has forged ahead with plans for Baltimore City schools despite a proposal by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Gov. Parris N. Glendening to restructure school government that would phase out Amprey's job.


Schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey bounded into his office at city school headquarters yesterday with his head held high.

He is acutely aware that Baltimore is watching, his administrators are watching, teachers are watching -- waiting for the end that city and state officials have signaled.

Amprey's job would be eliminated in the restructuring of school government proposed last week by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Gov. Parris N. Glendening to settle a long-running legal dispute over state aid and city school management.

Yesterday, Amprey declared that this will be his best year. Although he insisted he has no plans to leave, he also suggested that he would not abide a reorganization that undercuts his already carved-up authority.

Until he hears otherwise, he says, the job of superintendent is his and the work goes on: Teachers return to school Aug. 27; children return Sept. 4.

"I have no reason to believe that I won't be leading the schools through the opening in September, and through the greater part of the 1996-1997 school year, if not longer," he said. "I'll let the mayor handle the partnership stuff and working with the governor -- that's what they do. I'm going to try to work as quietly and fast as I can in the eye of this hurricane."

With trademark resilience, Amprey has forged ahead with plans to keep his many programs in place when school starts. Despite the city-state negotiators' wishful claim that they can wrap up a settlement before school opens, Amprey is an optimist.

There is no evidence that law- and policy-makers are finished bickering over whether, how or how soon to create a new government for city schools, he pointed out. The city and state may still end up going to trial, which could take years to resolve, he said.

State education officials have hinted directly and indirectly that there is no place in the "partnership" for Amprey. This week, at a news briefing, they said that Amprey would be free to apply for positions within the proposed new hierarchy of chief executive officer, chief academic officer and chief financial officer.

"I don't want to speculate about it so much, because I don't know enough about it," he said, "But just on first blush, I'd say, I want to be superintendent. I want to be responsible for the operation of these schools. That's what I was brought here to do. I don't want to relinquish any of that to any other group or force."

His office at North Avenue headquarters is his sanctuary from the political storm.

In the calm of his office suite yesterday, Amprey hailed his staff with characteristic enthusiasm and shook hands with visiting clergymen in his lobby. He checked the progress of his summer programs, and shouted gleefully when he found on his desk a gift from a secretary: a slice of homemade pound cake and a fork. He answered the repetitive questions of visitors: Are you going to be here? We saw the news: What's going to happen to you?

The minister's son grinned, and said he has neither the time nor the inclination to fret. There is nowhere he wants to go anytime soon, he insisted.

His $140,000-a-year contract is good through July 31, 1998, and contains a golden parachute clause that would ensure he is paid if the city decided to release him. He frequently receives invitations from other school districts, and he has learned on the speaking circuit of education conferences this summer that his skills are not only marketable but in demand.

"None of them come close to my desire to stick it through and to finish the job here," Amprey said. "I think that I've served the city well, and I plan to continue to serve the city. I have all kinds of spiritual and psychological reserve as far as this is concerned."

In a memo to all hands this week, Amprey urged nervous employees to ignore the school system's critics and the distraction of the continuing legal battle over school management and finance. He reminded them that more than 100,000 children depend on them to get schools open in one month.

No matter what detractors say about his ability to manage the behemoth and overburdened school system or its $650 million budget, few question his skills as a charismatic speaker and motivator.

His finest hour as cheerleader and cajoler may have come as he enters his sixth year as superintendent. If he lasts the year, he'll have achieved the second-longest tenure a schools chief has had in Baltimore in 25 years.

He has hoped that the city's lawsuit seeking an increase in state aid would end up at trial -- despite the cost and aggravation of litigating, he said. The lawsuit is being watched nationally: It's another chance to repeat his mantra that progress has been proved possible by his urban school district during the past five years.

He opposes the changes to city authority sought by state officials. The current arrangement -- with a hands-on mayor, an appointed school board, and a superintendent -- suits him fine.

"I think that their efforts to bring about change, if indeed that change is to get rid of me, would impact negatively on the mayor's ability to work well with the schools. My feeling is that we do have a structure that works. It is demonstrating that it works by the numbers," he said, referring to the upward creep of city scores on the state's annual tests. "And what we need to do now is to invest more strongly in it."

He acknowledges that there are management improvements to be made. It is the attack on local authority that makes the motives suspect for him.

"Let's stop playing these games around governance and management: Let's do something that we all agree needs to be done, which is put an appropriate funding formula in place that we know can make a difference if it is used appropriately," he said. "Then the next step is lock in what programs exist we can build on, what's been working and what do we want to discard. Then we can argue all day about who ought to do it."

There is also a toll on the school system during the battle. Amprey must steer the school system with lawyers in the way and uncertainty clouding his future.

"How do I address the management problems without appearing to totally acquiesce to someone who is saying we've got problems?" Amprey said, frustration evident. Also, he has lost several top-level managers during this stressful and uncertain season, and is having trouble attracting replacements, he said.

"There's always a question about 'How long are you going to be there, and if you aren't going to be there, what does that mean for me?' "

He is determined not to let the strain destroy the momentum or team spirit that still drives those closest to him in the administration, he said.

"You know the nature of the job carries with it so much stress: I would be dishonest if I did not say it was anxiety producing," he said. "What I want to make sure our parents and students and employees know is we've done well working together, and we will continue to do that. Nothing will stop. We are undaunted."

Pub Date: 8/02/96

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