Acting with uncharacteristic speed, the Montgomery County school board voted this week to renew school superintendent Charles M. Bernardo's contract for another four years.
The vote was 5-2, with board members Marian Greenblatt and Elizabeth Spencer casting the negative votes. The vote was preceded by strong and emotional speeches from board members extoling or criticizing Bernardo's performance.
The board's vote came 16 months before the expiration of Bernardo's present four-year contract which ends Sept. 30, 1979. Although the contract requires the board to notify Bernardo of its intent at least a year before expiration, the move to renew at his time was criticized by both Greenblatt and Spencer.
Greenblatt claimed that a new state law, taking effect July 1, would have delayed renewal of Bernardo's contract until February 1979. Other board members denied that there was any intent to circumvent the new law and said they were in accordance with the terms of Bernardo's present contract.
Greenblatt complained that Bernardo had not told the board about the new law and said, "I think there was a cover up." She also said the board was considering the renewal "prematurely."
"The intent of this early consideration is to avoid placing this question before a new board, the majority of whom will be elected in November," said Greenblatt. "Many of those running will vote to remove him and this board senses it."
Board member Roscoe Nix said the board wanted to remove the Bernardo contract as an issue in the school board campaigns. "There are those who would have made it THE issue," said Nix."I've heard from some potential candidates that regardless of how they stood on other issues, the crucial issue would be how they stand on the contract if they wanted to get the teachers association endorsement."
Nix said a campaign should focus as the superintendent's performance and other basic educational issues, but focusing it on the contract issue "could be a corrosive kind of thing for the system.
Two renewed of Bernardo's contract came in the midst of controversy over Bernardo's role in closing schools because of declining enrollment, the re-organisation of the school administration, and his relations with school personnel.
Bernardo's salary, currently $50,000 a year, will rise to $59,000 as of July 1.
John Fiscella, a negotiator for the Montgomery County Educators Association, which opposed renewal discussion at this time, said after the board vote, "Our position is: What the board did they don't have the power to do. In the next few days we'll be meeting with our lawyers to decide if we are going to go to court to challenge whether what they did is legal and binding.
Fiscella said he "doubted" if the issue of the contract would have been raised by the union if Bernardo had not been controversial. "We are worried the new board will not have the option to decide on his contract. They might be locked in by the present board's decision.
Bernardo drew strong support from board member Herbert Benington.
"From my point of view, the superintendent has delivered conceptions and objectives which the board discussed with him when he was hired," he said.
"We are late in my mind in implementing reorgaization," Benington added, referring to the massive reorganization of the school administration that Bernardo designed and the school board approved last winter. "We have seen indications that reorganization has gone well so far. All the senior officials are in place. The one major unfinished part is (speculation on) whether or not the superintendent will be there to lead reorganization."
Board member Verna Fletcher ticked off joint achievements of the board and the superintendent as follows: "Pro-active human relations, attendance monitoring, monitoring systems for reading and math to make sure every child gets adequate education, programs in continuum education (including special education), successful desegregation in parts of this county, meeting the challenge of the declining enrollment . . ."
Charles Bernardo has failed to be an effective leader," she said. His reorganization "has alienated every major group affected - the teachers, the principals, the supporting services employes and the central staff. They all opposed both the substance of the new reorganization and the way it was developed. As a result morale is even lower then before . . . He has failed to communicate effectively with parents, staff, and board members. The educational jargon, which obscures rather than clarifies, has taken enough of a toll."
Board president Elizabeth Spencer, who also voted against renewal, said, "I must say superintendents are always the target of criticism, but this is the most vicious of any I've had to contend with. I believe it's the responsibility of the board to decide on renewal prior to Sept. 30, but I did not want to do it this soon. I deffer not with his end products but with his style."
Spencer said later, "I wanted to give him as much time as possible to demonstrate that his problems were style and attitude and he could change." Spencer said Bernardo's dealings with staff had resulted in their low morale. "I believe he can change. I do not have evidence he has changed."
During the discussion, Bernardo sat composed, looking tired.
"I think the superintendent has performed his duties satisfactorily, and in some cases, well," said board member Blair Ewing.
"Those accomplishments have been done under the most severe of circumstances," added Roscoe Nix, the board member who drafted the resolution to renew Bernardo's contract. "The venomous attacks, the whispering campaigns. In spite of it all, he has remained cool and done his work. I would hope those who must engage in those campaigns would pause for a moment and wonder, in the words of lawyer Joseph Welch, defending a man attacked by McCarthy during the hearings, "is there no decency?" I would hope in this county there is a reservoir of decency that would eventually rise and assert itself. I would hope there is a constituency here in this county that would value decency."
After the vote, Bernardo thanked the board for their "continued confidence." "I formally . . . at this time accept your contract. I shall dedicate myself to this work with God's help."
He also said he was "very, very pleased" with an independent auditor's report, presented to the board only an hour before, that found Bernardo did nothing illegal or unusual when he hired a personal friend, Dr. William Pepper, to do$42,000 worth of consulting work over the past three years.The board asked for an investigation when teachers union head Henry Heller charged that such contracts required competitive bidding.
After the meeting, school staffers and supporters rushed up to shake Bernardo's hand and congratulate him on his contract renewal. Smiling, he greeted them all. Asked if he harbored any bitterness or anger toward [WORD ILLEGIBLE] who had harshly criticized him [WORD ILLEGIBLE] said softly, "No . . . I'm a very fundamentalist Christian. I love my fellow man, and I will continue to work for the benefit of all our children."