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Bartlett's promise: A talk with the new superintendent

October 22, 1997

The Washington County Commissioners may soon see a new face in the audience at their weekly Tuesday meetings. Dr. Herman Bartlett Jr., the county's new superintendent of schools, said last week he plans to attend some sessions of the county board, even when there's no school board business on the commissioners' agenda.

It's practice he followed at his last post in Montgomery County, Va., and just one of things he shared last week during a long session with Herald-Mail reporters and editors.

Whatever happens from this point on, give Bartlett credit for this: He sat down with Herald-Mail staffers after extensive coverage of his problems in his last post and answered their questions without blinking or trying to mitigate some of what happened down south, where some reported that he was autocratic, inflexible and not the best at labor relations.

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Listen to the critics, yes, Bartlett said, but "if I can be judged by anything, I'd like to be judged on my record."

One of the things he apparently did right was building a better relationship with Montgomery County's Board of Supervisors. He attended all of their meetings, he said, so that "on education issues, when those issues came up, I could speak to them in an open, inviting way."

On issues of concern to teachers, Bartlett said "I will reach out to them in any way I can." In Montgomery County, Bartlett said, his tenure wasn't long enough for him to significantly improve starting teacher pay, though he said he believes his good relationships with the board of supervisors set the stage for future pay improvements.

Bartlett was candid about the fact that while pay for senior teachers was in the top 25 percent of counties in the state, starting pay was not that good, for a simple reason.

The county contained two major universities - Virginia Tech and Radford - which pumped out a great number of entry-level teaching candidates, Bartlett said. The law of supply and demand made it easy to decide to put the money into keeping experienced teachers' pay up, he said.

There's no question pay levels need to be improved in Washington County, Bartlett said. But he said that beyond that, work needs to be done to attract the best and brightest young people to teaching as a profession.

Some of that will involve doing what former school board president Tom Berry believed must be done here: Getting ordinary citizens to value education in a way they don't at present. Though it's beginning to fade, there's still a feeling among many in the community that common sense will take you further than education, and that teachers are not worth the tax dollars that they cost.

This area has made little progress in selling the public on either idea because the previous superintendent did not speak up for education when the profession and the school system were under attack.

When the critics start in on the schools, Bartlett must respond, even if responding means acknowledging that the critics are right. One of the school board's worst mistakes in the past year was not sending someone to Del. Joanne Benson's meeting with a group of local parents whose children have serious learning difficulties.

Benson has three other pieces of business to attend to. The first is reaching out to the Greater Hagerstown Committee, whose offer of assistance in interviewing candidates for the superintendent's post was rebuffed by the school board. GHC members were afraid (and rightly so) that a wrong choice for this post would be disastrous. Bartlett needs to show this group of local CEOs that he's is the right person for the job.

He must also look at the Career Studies Center programs, which the builder-developer faction in this county has long felt is the poor stepchild of the school system.

In Montgomery County, Bartlett said the decision was made to split up the function, so there would be a vocational track in each of the county's four high schools. That would probably be more expensive, but would also make it easier to recruit students who are reluctant to leave their "home" school.

Finally, Bartlett must work to keep factions from forming on the school board, because as we've seen, if one group feels it's on the outside or not being consulted, it will act in ways that block progress, instead of moving the system forward.

Bartlett says he's ready for this last task, telling us that if he feels he's lost the faith of the board, they won't have to vote him out, because he'll leave on his own. That's one promise I hope the new superintendent doesn't have to keep.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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