THREE WEEKS from today, Baltimore is scheduled to go to court in an effort to wrest more money from the state for its public schools. In a recent interview, city schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey expressed his views on the trial, on his management, on his critics and on his future.
You've said that it's necessary that there be a trial as opposed to legislation establishing a city-state "partnership" to run the system. Why?
We continue to argue about governance when it's real clear that it's an issue of resources. A trial is an absolute necessity because it will allow us as a city and a nation to look at what's happening to urban education. If we don't do something about it, nothing else much is going to matter. We're out of time, out of tricks. But we're not just asking for money at the trial. We've developed a remedy plan. It hasn't been shared [with the public] yet.
Principals of the city schools ordered to reform by the state have been complaining that they've received little accompanying financial help. Do you agree?
The state money is tied up in this whole partnership [plan]. It's pure blackmail to do that to children. To recognize that it's important enough to reconstitute these schools, to develop a plan, to do it right away for children, and then to say, "Well, we're not going to give you any money" -- that's political blackmail.
Your management has been strongly criticized, especially by state Superintendent Nancy Grasmick and Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings. How do you respond?
I've chosen not to get into a contest with them, hurling charges back and forth. I want to take the high road. I worked with Nancy for five years in Baltimore County. It's a matter of record what she thought of me as an on-line administrator and what she thought of me as a person.
I must say I have run a school system. She has not. The same thing is true of Delegate Rawlings. There's no record of his being an administrator who operated anything.
But how about Grasmick's specific charges, and the fact that a federal judge removed special education from your authority because of alleged mismanagement?
Special education has been taken away from me now for about year and a half. Let's use common sense and separate out the part that Amprey's been mismanaging and the part others have been mismanaging. And how much better is [special education] since it's been taken away from me? To me, it clearly seems to be a bit of blaming the victim.
That's why the trial is important. People who are really worrying about the future of urban education will have a chance to see. The progress we've made as a school system is a matter of record. It's not fast enough for some. There's been too much pain, too much obstruction, too many things to go wrong. But if we can move faster with more effort, more resources, more attention, we'll get there. It's almost like playing golf. If we could just get four good strokes together to make par!
Some say that Mayor Schmoke is running the show and that you'll be history as soon as you become a political liability.
He's the mayor of the city of Baltimore and responsible for the execution of all things a mayor should do, including the school system. It's the largest agency the city has. Kurt also has more fiduciary responsibility than his critics. We're much more in concert than we are separate and apart in how we see things ought to happen.
Everybody talks about the mayor's involvement, the school board's involvement. I sense that I run the show. I think the school system revolves around me. The city identifies me with the schools. I don't know how I'd feel about taking a lesser leadership role. I mean, this is 30 years for me, and I can't imagine retiring.
Has the battery charge brought by your wife against you [and dropped in court last week] damaged your credibility?
No, but maybe that's because I don't want to think it. Maybe someone else will have to answer that question. You can't have everyone out there happy with you. I just try to stay on the high road. I try to stay real positive, to focus on getting it done, moving on. Part of what helps is that people do know me. It's hard for me to go about in Baltimore without being recognized, but I think people know more than just my face; they have a general sense of who I am and what I'm about.
Six years on the job is a long time for an urban superintendent. How are you holding up, and where do you see yourself, say, five years from now?
When I got the job in 1991, I was scared with everything I did. But this job no longer scares me; it just excites me. I know there might be some folks who don't buy into it, but there's been too much affirmation [of] my own ability to lead.
In about five years, I'll be announcing my retirement. By that time I'll have been on the job 12 or 13 years, a school generation.
The prevailing belief is that the system is in crisis, a mess, not going anywhere. My critics say, "Let's change the governance!" But quietly, almost like the hand on an analog clock, good things really are happening.
The Sept. 25 Education Beat incorrectly reported that Barron's charges for entries in its college guidebook. We regret the error.
Pub Date: 10/16/96