As 22 Montgomery County elementary schools await decisions on whether they will still be open in September 1978, school officials have begun reviewing the procedures they used to close 14 schools in the past two years.
Supt. Charles M. Bernardo recently recommended that the board study the schools' for possible closings because enrollment has been shrinking down county, where the schools are located. The board would determine which schools, if any, would determine which schools, if any, would be closed.
But a review of the board's school closing procedures which was prompted by complaints about previous closings is delaying the study.
Meanwhile, because of the county's tightening fiscal situation, county officials are pressuring the board to close underpopulted schools faster. When the County Council recently began the task of determining next year's school budget, Councilman Norman Christeller recalled that school board president Herbert Benington said that each school closing saves $125,000 a year.
"Small schools are an expensive luxury," Christeller said. "If we keep the small schools open, the relative decline in resources available will result in a decline in educational quality . . . Every underutilized school that remains in service will be stealing resources that would be more productively used in other parts of the educational program."
The board decided to review procedures for closing schools last month after board member Blair Ewing, a foe of the procedures, declared, "We can't continue picking off schools one by one, annoying everyone in the community."
Under a policy adopted in 1974, the board formed citizen advisory committees to help determine school closings. The resultant process was excruciatingly slow and characterized by emotional hearings filled with grim parents bearing "save our school" signs and last-minute delays as the board reached the brink of decision only to schedule more hearings.
Bernardo has suggested reducing the number of community committees, more detailed educational planning and an expanded role for county government involvement. He also advocates a more defined long range plane for school closings.
Under the small schools policy, the board is committed to extensive community involvement in closings and to considering such factors as enrollment, racial balance, educational programs, transportation requirements and operating costs.
Bernardo's suggestions would not affect the criteria considered in deciding which schools are to be closed. But he would give the primary role for study and analysis to the board, with citizen reaction coming later in the process.
At a meeting last week, some board members criticized the citizens advisary committees, saying they have been burdened with responsibilities that should be the board's. Board member Marian Greenblatt said the committees do much of the planning for closing schools while the "board fails to come to grips with the problem until the end."
Ewing said having citizen committees do the background work for the closings forced the communities "not only to participate in their own funerals, but to dig their own graves and to shovel in the dirt."
In addition, some board members said there haven been communications problems between the school system and communities. They also suggested that future use of closed buildings by the county be made a criterion for deciding which schools should be closed; that the criteria for closings be weighted; and that the policy be extended to secondary schools, which are expected to soon experience decreasing enrollments.
Review on the school closing policy is likely to extend into June, because this month the board is wrestling with budgetary matters.
Board members generally appear to favor a review - although they have expressed resignation that whatever method is used for closing neighborhood schools, local residents will be unhappy. But emotional aspects will matter less, some board members believe, as the fiscal constraits become tighter.
Board member Daryl Shaw, a former high school principal, predicted that financial considerations will play a greater role in determining the closings. "Educationa decisions arent going to be the basis," he said. "It will be economic. It will be much more closely tied in with the overall budget and the use of the buildings."
School closings are a relatively new phenomenon in Montgomery County and the nation. Throughout the '50s, '60s and early '70s, the system raced to build schools to keep up with booming enrollment. Then, with few exceptions, closings were limited to one-two-and three-room schoolhouses.
After 1973, when enrollment peaked at 126,000, declining birth rates, increasing interest rates and the sewer moratorium have lowered enrollment. There are about 116,800 students in the system this school year, some 4,600 fewer than last year.
Enrollment is increasing upcounty, however, as more people move to that area.