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School bell rings early: Bernd gets fill of district after one year as Little Rock school superintendent.

"I'm going to give this district everything I've got." -- Mac Bernd, former Little Rock School District superintendent

"We're proud of you, and we're proud of ourselves. It's going to be a long marriage." -- George Cannon, Little Rock School Board member and former district superintendent

THAT WAS THE SCENE AT A meeting in May 1992, when the Little Rock School District voted unanimously to hire Mac Bernd as its seventh superintendent in 10 years.

The board believed Bernd was someone who would bring much-needed leadership stability to the district. In an effort to ensure that stability, it offered Bernd an enticing package that included a $110,000 salary plus the potential of an extra $100,000 from an annuity and a community-financed supplement if he stayed five years.

But with his one-year anniversary looming and his popularity waning, Bernd is leaving Little Rock and its mired desegregation case to become superintendent of a smaller district in Newport Beach, Calif., at a salary of $104,000.

When Bernd came July 1 from a San Diego district, he brought a reputation as an inspired educator with a proven record of finding innovative ways to raise student achievement. That work had to take a backseat to the tedious, time-consuming task of dealing with the federal court that oversees the Pulaski County school desegregation case.

Bernd says his frustration in dealing with the legal system is the overriding reason for his decision to leave. He acknowledges he did his homework before accepting the Little Rock job and knew of the district's long-running desegregation case but says he still wasn't prepared for its negative impact on the daily operations of a school district.

"There's a lot of fear in that courtroom," he says. "It's a very tense atmosphere, and it is my belief that is transmitted throughout the organization. That part has really frustrated me because what I'm good at is working on strengths, working on positives."

School board members and others in the community say Bernd leaves as something of an unknown quantity because he didn't have a real opportunity for hands-on educational improvement. Instead, he's been grappling with administrative problems.

Upon arriving, Bernd promptly had to balance the district budget by cutting $10 million. He worked quickly -- and too independently, his critics say -- in selecting programs such as elementary music and gifted and talented programs for the budget tax, and this angered many district parents.

He then recommended that the district scrap its plans for an aerospace magnet high school, saying the district didn't need it and couldn't afford it. The decision alienated many aerospace supporters in the business community.

About a month later, Bernd suspended popular Central High School Principal John Hickman over alleged financial and sexual misconduct. His suspension led to heated public hearings, and the matter still is unresolved.

"None of those are decisions that a superintendent would like to have to make in his first year," Bernd says. "You like to spend your first year establishing credibility and not having to make such divisive and high-profile decisions. I felt like I had to make them if I was going to do my job. That's what it boiled down to, so it was kind of a Catch-22."

Bernd's detractors say the superintendent was often overly decisive by making decisions too quickly and not accepting advice very readily.

"Mac Bernd came here and had to make some very difficult decisions, but he never involved the public in those decisions," says Skip Rutherford, a former school board member, former board president and father of three children in the district.

"Many parents felt like he treated them as if their interests didn't matter, and I think the big mistake he made was in not building consensus to help him make some tough decisions."

School board member John Riggs IV agrees the sequence of decisions earned Bernd a certain degree of unpopularity.

"He alienated some people with that," Riggs says. "He never got a firm base of support."

Bernd says he had more time before making a second round of budget cuts later in the year and sought more public input. When making the initial budget cuts, he says, that wasn't possible because of time and legal constraints.

"I think the worst mockery you can make of people is to ask their opinion and be so cynical that you know you really can't carry it out," Bernd says.

John Moore, school board president, says some of Bernd's high-profile decisions upstaged his achievements.

For example, Moore says, the number of weapons confiscated in the public schools was down this year and discipline improved. Also, going into the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, the district will have a balanced budget and all employee groups are already under contract.

"That's accomplished before school starts," Moore says. "That's a miracle."

Although many say Bernd didn't really ever mesh with the community at large, he tried to be more accessible after several months on the job by appearing weekly on Pat Lynch's KARN-AM, 920, radio show. Because of some of the flak Bernd's decisions brought, Lynch began calling the superintendent "the human punching bag."

"I think it's an apt description at times," Bernd says.

"The Little Rock superintendent is a focal point for a lot of competing interests, |and~ very strong opinions. I really believe that everybody in the city wants the schools to get better. They can probably agree on that, but the minute you get past that concept, there are very strong opinions as to how it should be done."

Despite some of the punches Bernd has taken in his brief, tumultuous tenure, he says he'll look back fondly on his experience here.

"I've really enjoyed this culture. I've enjoyed a lot of the things I've been able to do here," he says, mentioning, for example, his occasional stints as a disc jockey for a blues program on the community radio station.

"I'm going to reflect on this experience, and there's going to be a lot I'll miss about Little Rock."
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Walters, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jun 21, 1993
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