Activist on sex-ed issue seeks Montgomery school board seat

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 7:09 PM

A woman who is part of a group that sued Montgomery County Public Schools over its sex-education curriculum is running for the Board of Education, reviving a debate about how homosexuality and premarital sex should be dealt with in the schools.

Martha Schaerr, who is running for the District 5 seat against incumbent Michael E. Durso, said that her 2007 fight against the sex-education curriculum is not her focus this time around; instead, she said, her primary concerns are basic issues such as the budget and student achievement.

But gay-rights advocates have criticized Schaerr for not being more open about her involvement with Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, of which she is a member.

The group sued the school system twice, arguing that its sex-education curriculum was dismissive of religions that consider homosexuality a sin and that it tacitly encouraged gay sex. The group wanted the curriculum to include discussions acknowledging various views about homosexuality, including that some people believe sexual orientation is a choice. It also opposed any mention of anal intercourse, saying that would violate a law against teaching "erotic techniques."

In 2005, a federal judge halted the teaching of the curriculum, saying that it presented one-sided views of homosexuality. A revised curriculum survived legal challenges in 2007.

"To bring someone onto the school board who has views that are so antithetical to the health and welfare of our gay students is bad for the county," said David Fishback, advocacy chair of the D.C. chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, who has tangled with the curriculum group.

Schaerr said that she'd rather focus on other issues.

"When you're talking about sex ed, people seem to hear the word and go to one corner or the other," she said. "All of the board members have said they're happy with it, so it's not very collaborative of me to bring it up right now. I would like to bring it up at an appropriate time when people can talk about it and not yell."

Instead, Schaerr said, she is concerned about student achievement and what she describes as the school system's unwillingness to listen to parents and teachers. Two of her seven children are still in the school system, at Magruder High School, where she has been president of the Parent-Teacher-Student Association.

"I admire [Montgomery School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's] vision and his use of data, but my experience has been that a lot of decisions have been made top-down," Schaerr said. Seeing the number of students in the county's schools who have failing grades "is what prompted me to run this time," she said.

Academic achievement will be even harder to improve with the tough fiscal climate, she said. "We're projected to get 10,000 more kids, and the money is just not there. We're going to have to cut, but cut wisely."

But Montgomery County gay-rights advocates say that Schaerr's past remains relevant. And adding to an unusually contentious school board race, one of Schaerr's allies from the fight against the sex-education curriculum has organized a yard-sign campaign called the Rotten Apple Ballot, which is fighting candidates who were endorsed by the Montgomery County teachers union.

"If you want your legislators to listen to you, it's not going to happen," said Ruth Jacobs, president of Citizens for a Responsible Government, the group that has distributed the signs. She said legislators listen to the teachers union. Her group also has fought against a bill prohibiting discrimination against transgendered people, and she was a member of Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, along with Schaerr.

Jacobs said that Citizens for a Responsible Government has not endorsed any candidates in the elections this year.

The teachers union has said that there is nothing untoward about its endorsement process.

Durso, the District 5 incumbent, had just retired as principal of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring when he was appointed to the school board in 2009 to fill a vacancy.

He said he was "concerned" about some of Schaerr's positions on the curriculum, adding that "the school system has a role to support all students and all views and to try to make that atmosphere as conducive and non-threatening as possible."

But he also said that the superintendent search and the budget, not sex education, were the big issues in his mind. "I think we've got our hands full," he said.

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