The Montgomery County Board of Education is facing what board members believe is one of the most awesome tasks in its history - the closing for the first time of secondary schools to cope with declining enrollment and the possible shift from a junior high to 4-year high school system.
Board member Verna Fletcher said recently, "Meeting shifting enrollments is probably the biggest challenge this board has got to face and it's the most inflammatory.
"Hidden in it is the loss of teacher jobs and supporting service jobs. And hidden in it is the fact that you cannot pull back resources as quickly as children leave the schools. Declining enrollment has a cost."
The seriousness of the issues was illustrated last week when Superintendent Charles M. Bernardo came before the board and the community to explain his for closing schools and school reorganization.
Usually, Bernardo delivers his reports seated and seems to try to blend with the seven board members who flank him. But that night, he stood alone at a podium. And although known for facility with multisyllabic words and deftness in coining ponderous phrases, he spoke anecdotally, often personally.
Enrollment, he said, has been declining since September, 1972, when there were 126,311 pupils. During the past school year, enrollment was 10,483 fewer than the 1972 total and a loss of an additional 22,400 students is projected by September, 1982.
"We're facing it. We're biting the bullet," Bernardo said in introducing his options for closing at least 30 schools - including seven to nine secondary schools - by June, 1982. It is the first comprehensive plan for secondary school closings in the county.
During the last year and a half, the school board has ordered 16 elementary schools closed, frequently over the vehement protests of parents who spoke of strong ties to neighborhood schools.
"We have to decide whether our allegiance is to bricks and mortar, or to the neighborhood school, as we understnad it, or whether ir is to the excellence of education," Bernardo said, linking the closing of schools to the maintenance of quality education.
But after his half-hour speech, there was no applause, only silence from the more than 300 persons in the audience. Among the listeners were many adults and children who wore green badges signifying their ties to Woodward High School, which would be closed under his options.
The final decisions on how school closings will proceed and whether the county will go to the middle school concept - grades 6, 7 and 8 - rests with the school board.At this point, the board seems united in the belief that some closings will be necessary but divided on such issues as how many to close, how fast to close them and whether to reorganize grade structures.
For example, board member Fletcher says she is very much in favor of middle schools and believes that the closing of secondary schools should take place faster than recommended by Bernardo.
"Already some schools are getting so small that they cannot offer decent programs. Can we wait to do something?" she asked.
Board member Roscoe Nix, however, said he has no problems with Bernardo's schedule for closings but does have doubts about the middle school concept. "I am not convinced that the middle school is the answer to the county's school system. The task force made as compelling a case for continuing the junior high school as they did for the middle school," he said.
He referred to a recent report to the board on middle schools by a task force of citizens and school administrators.
The issues are related because changing to a four-year high school pattern instead of the current 10-12 grade plan, would make a difference in how many high schools would be closed, Bernardo said.
The superintendent presented two options for school closings. The first outlined a plan for changing to middle schools and 4-year high schools, which Bernardo says he favors. The second outlined closures while maintaining the present grade structure.
Both options are based on the assumption that the following would occur: gradual implementation over five years; improved feeder patterns so no school sends its graduates to more than two other schools; similar size enrollments for all high schools; and maintenance or improvement of racial balance.
Under the first option, only one senior high school would be closed - Woodward, at the end of the 1979-80 school year. The option maintaining the present system, however, calls for three senior high school closures: Einstein in 1980 and Woodward and Northwood in 1981.
Both call for closing five junior highs and one existing middle school. The difference is in the timing of the closing of North Bethesda junior high. It would close in June, 1981, under the grade reorganization option and in June, 1980, under the other option.
Under both plans, the other scheduled closings are: Kensington, Lee and Takoma Park, June, 1979; Parkland, June, 1981 and Southlawn Middle School, June, 1978.
Both options call for the closing of between 23 and 28 elementary schools over the next five years.
While Bernardo's recommendations for schools to be closed were based only on size, some board members say other factors such as capacity, location and possible alternative uses, should be weighed.
In addition, there is the factor of elections for four board members next year and the entire county council. There are fears among board members that the closures could be a factor in the elections.
During the summer, the board is expected to revise its standards for school closings. In September, it is expected to hold hearings on the revised standards and on grade reorganization. It is expected to make its first decisions on closings next January.