Charles M. Bernardo, who was forced to resign as Montgomery County school superintendent in 1979 under fire from teachers and a conservative school board, has been appointed Utah state school superintendent.
Jay Monson, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education that picked Bernardo for the $63,000 a year job last week, described his board yesterday as "a very conservative group in a very conservative state." But he said the board had been impressed by Bernardo's "leadership ability and the range of his experience.
"Yes, the board was aware of some of the controversy" surrounding Bernardo, Monson said in a telephone interview. "But we are willing to take the risk. He's a very impressive young man."
Since leaving his Montgomery post, Bernardo, 44, has been a real estate investor and salesman, most recently for Palm Coast, Fla., a waterfront community near Daytona Beach, as well as an educational consultant.
Bernardo said yesterday that he feels his views are "very compatible" with the outlook of the Utah board. "I think those labels 'liberal' and 'conservative' can be very, very deceiving," he said. "I regard myself as a fiscal conservative and I think my administration was more conservative in that respect than those who are self-appointed conservatives.
"People called me a liberal because I espoused equal educational opportunity for all students regards of race, sex, or handicapping condition," he continued. "The educational leadership in Utah espouses that, too. I regard that as a very conservative position."
In Utah, Bernardo will be in a charge of a state school system with 40 local school districts and about 340,000 students. The state voted heavily for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election and is dominated by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), who make up more than 70 percent of its population.
Bernardo is the first nonresident and one of only two non-Mormons to hold the post of state school superintendent. One of his predecessors was Terrel H. Bell, the current U.S. secretary of education. Bernardo will succeed Walter D. Talbot, who has served since 1970 and will be retiring in late June.
Bernardo, who said he is an Episcopalian, grew up in a heavily Italian neighborhood in Yonkers, N.Y. Before coming to Montgomery County in 1975, he had been school superintendent in Providence, R.I., where he carried out a major desegregation plan and was embroiled in heated controversies with administrators and teachers over a highly structured "systems approach" to teaching that he introduced.
In Montgomery the teachers union attacked him for a similar computer-assisted instructional program and also for a mandatory black studies course he instituted for all school employes.
He became the major issue in the 1978 Montgomery County school board election after a board majority extended his contract for an additional four years, about 15 months before such an extension was required.
A conservative slate, campaigning on the slogan, 'Budget, Basics, and Bernardo' swept the election and then moved to oust him. Bernardo fought tenaciously to hold onto his job, but after losing a case in circuit court, he agreed to leave in return for a half year's salary plus a $400-a-month pension at retirement age.
Bernardo continued to live in Rockville after leaving his school post. He worked for about a year as a vice president of Pacific Consultants, a minority-owned firm that provided research and technical training, but left in 1980 to form his own real estate investment and property management firm, BSW Management Corp., in Falls Church. He said he sold that company about a year ago.
Monson said Bernardo was chosen as superintendent after a nationwide search in which 79 applicants were "seriously considered." He noted that Utah is one of the few states where public schools are gaining students. "I think we need a fresh outlook to deal with the problems here," he said, "and Bernardo is going to bring that."