Three Mothers Of Persistence
By Jackie Spinner
It's Saturday night in the suburbs, and three moms are huddled in an Upper Marlboro dining room, where in between the teenagers coming and going, the squabbles breaking out over video games and a mother-in-law who stops by, they plot to end crowding in the Prince George's County schools.
They call their gathering "the slumber party." Every weekend for months, Donna Hathaway Beck, Audrey Gleske and Linda Owens -- who together have 10 children, three husbands and a litter of puppies -- have turned their frustration over the quality of their children's education into a crusade that has helped to change the way the county manages development.
Despite having no expertise in such issues, the three women discovered flaws in the formula the county used to determine whether building housing developments and other residences would send more children to schools already burdened by crowding. They exposed a series of missteps by state legislators that allowed developers to escape paying special taxes that would have helped fund school construction.
Last week, the trio known as the "PTA moms" tasted victory as they watched the County Council vote to place a moratorium on new housing near crowded schools -- a first in Prince George's County.
"Everybody said about us, `They're just housewives,' " said Beck, 41, who has four children, ages 12, 14, 15 and 17. "Well, these irate women went up against these people with degrees, and we showed them that they were wrong and we got their attention. I'm happy to be just a bunch of housewives."
Every community has them: average citizens who sink their teeth into an issue and refuse to let go as they press for change. Often, such grass-roots activists are frustrated by their encounters with government and walk away empty-handed. The Prince George's threesome has gotten results through dogged persistence and fine-toothed analysis of county legislation and school enrollment data.
"I honestly believe we wouldn't have been able to do what we did without their added enlightenment and research," said council member M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Upper Marlboro). "I'm pretty proud of them. They really were models for how activists should be."
The mothers have not accomplished their objectives without raising some questions about their motivations. Gleske has moved out of the county, and Owens plans to leave next month, which doesn't sit right with some folks who wonder privately whether the mothers are truly committed to the cause of Prince George's schools.
Beck, who is white and no novice to grass-roots activism, was involved with another campaign two years ago that generated some uneasy racial tension.
Based on a federal complaint she filed, the school system was forced to rename and restructure the popular Black Male Achievement Initiative, a mentoring program. Beck, a women's rights activist, said she challenged the program only so her daughter could participate. But her complaint put her at odds with some African American parents who saw it as an attempt to dismantle an initiative aimed at helping black males.
Some of those same parents said the latest effort by Beck and the two other mothers, who also are white, is more of the same -- a way to use the media to emphasize the negative in the schools, which are predominantly black.
"What's so special about them?" asked Franklin Jackson, himself an involved parent of four children who attend public school in Prince George's. Jackson said the moratorium on development sought by the mothers could stifle construction of high-end, quality housing that the county wants.
"Maybe the women have forced the county to find a better way to think about development, and if that's their legacy, it's a great legacy," he said. "But I think it's too early to attribute that to them."
The PTA moms acknowledge they have critics.
"It's not about us," Owens said. "It's about the kids we're leaving behind. People are so shortsighted, they don't understand that."
Their cause took root a year ago with a sixth-grade math test Gleske's daughter brought home from school, a test the women now call their "Magna Carta."
Jennifer Gleske, 12, is on the "talented and gifted" track for the county's brightest students. But Audrey Gleske, 38 and mother of four, said she was shocked that Jennifer's test involved math problems as easy as zero-times-one and six-times-two.
The mothers, neighbors in Upper Marlboro, seethed over what they saw as the latest indication of the poor education their children were getting. Achievement test scores in Prince George's are among the lowest in the state, and student enrollment exceeds capacity at about half of the county's 182 schools.
By last spring, the mothers were ripe for battle. The issue was on the public agenda, as the County Council was close to adopting a tax on new development to help pay for school construction and alleviate crowding by discouraging construction.
Melwood Elementary, where all three then had children, had two temporary classrooms to handle an overflow of students when the mothers started to notice new development in the neighborhood. Owens's 11-year-old son, Thomas Daniel Johnson, was in a classroom with 34 students. His teacher told Owens that the ideal size was 24 and that she could do hardly more than crowd control.
The moms began to meet nearly every weekend at each other's houses. Beck set up a command center in her house, a dining room converted to an office. Up on the walls went two posters, one that lists "women who have changed the world" and another that instructs "how to be a fabulous feminist."
They had fun times. At last Saturday's slumber party, which ended after midnight, they devoured a cheesecake. At one point, they laughed when Owens wondered aloud, "Why is it that men always run things?"
They also worked hard. Piece by piece, slumber party after slumber party, they picked apart the legislation that would have created the tax to pay for school construction. The council had proposed a so-called pay-and-go plan that would allow developers to proceed with their projects near crowded schools as long as they paid a fee. But the moms were concerned about the way the plan would assess whether schools were crowded.
For example, when they studied a project near their neighborhood, called Marlton Town Center, they found out that Board of Education calculations said that the project's 91 apartments were expected to add only four elementary students to Mattaponi Elementary in Upper Marlboro. James Madison Middle School and Frederick Douglass High School were expected to pick up only one new student each from the apartments.
The same figures projected that 718 students would be enrolled at James Madison by 1998. In 1993, the school already had 782 students and was nearing capacity.
Something wasn't adding up.
They went to the County Council with their concerns, and in August, council members agreed to rewrite the school financing plan. Council members hailed the women as "housewives" who saved the day.
Owens, 40 and the mother of two, said the three literally danced in the street outside Beck's house when they heard the news that the council had accepted their research as legitimate.
"That gave us credibility," she said. The women were hooked.
Nearly every Saturday night for months, the mothers met, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. Their children would play together while the moms studied enrollment charts and drank innumerable cups of soda to keep going. They found time despite their other commitments: Owens has a full-time job as a computer programmer. Beck has a part-time position as a secretary. All three have households with children to manage.
They watched the council closely over the next two months as members debated a new plan, one that relied on more accurate enrollment figures. They increased their demands on the council, calling for a cap that would limit development in neighborhoods where schools were severely crowded.
But the council rejected a cap on development in October and sent the legislation on to a public hearing without one.
Undeterred, the mothers went back to work. Beck traveled to Annapolis to study a related bill the General Assembly passed last spring that levies another surcharge on new residences built in Prince George's County to pay for new schools.
She discovered that legislators had exempted about 40,000 future homes and apartments from paying the tax, and the council's new plan would do the same. She figured out that the surcharge exemption cost the county $5 million last year.
She came back livid. "I want my $5 million. Where's our $5 million?" she'd ask just about anyone who would listen.
The mothers fine-tuned their lobbying campaign and aimed to project a more professional image. Beck laid out new rules: They had to wear pantyhose to public hearings, and they had to try to show up on time. Owens abandoned her signature bobby socks, black sneakers and pink sweat suit to conform.
Again, they got results. Council members vowed to get the surcharge exemption removed next spring, a move that is backed by County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D).
The women again turned their attention to getting a moratorium on building near crowded schools. At one slumber party, they logged onto America Online to find addresses and phone numbers of county staff members and other notables who were drafting the school finance plan. They wanted to know whether the people who opposed the moratorium lived in the county.
They discovered that some key figures didn't, but the point was lost since Owens and Gleske were moving out of the county. Gleske, who had lived in Prince George's since 1987, has now moved to Anne Arundel County, and Owens, whose family moved to Prince George's when she was 14, is moving in two weeks.
Gleske said she might not have decided to move out of the county if somebody had done something about the schools.
"But they didn't," she said. "When do you stop and say it's somebody's problem and we all have to take care of it?"
The day before the Nov. 18 public hearing on the tax legislation, the mothers heard through their network of county staff members that council member Estepp was going to propose an amendment the next day that would establish a cap on development -- a victory for the PTA moms.
The day after the moratorium was adopted, the mothers took carrot cakes to the staff members' secretaries who would put them through on the phone without hesitation when they called. They were pleased but not ready to celebrate.
The developers had been happy with the compromise plan that the council adopted, too happy as far the mothers are concerned.
"If the builders are happy, our antenna should be up," Beck said.
Last Saturday night, they were back studying the amendment that created the cap, trying to figure out how many developers would have to pay the fees.
They are concerned about another loophole that appears to exempt developers from paying the fees in the most crowded sections of the county, where the moratorium would be in place.
The moratorium stops developers from building for four years to give the county time to prepare for an influx of students. But after four years, they can proceed.
If they can proceed and not have to pay fees, Owens said, it will encourage developers who are willing to wait four years to build in the most crowded areas to save money. But by the end of the night, the mothers decided not to make a big deal about it. They will simply send letters to lawmakers pointing out their concerns.
"It's just come so far, and we're afraid that we'll lose whatever growth management we have," Beck said. "And we're afraid of the perception that we're never going to be happy.
"But God help them if we weren't around," she said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company