With elementary school enrollments still declining rapidly in the down county area, the Montgomery County school board voted last week to study 15 elementary schools and one middle school as possible candidates for closing in June of 1978.
The prospects, however, were that only a few would actually be closed after the study process was completed. "A reasonable estimation of the number of schools that will be closed is five to seven," school superintendent Charles M. Bernardo said. Bernardo sent a memo containing that estimate to principals of the schools that will be studied.
The schools were selected from a list of 14 elementary, one middle, and three junior high schools submitted by the school staff as possibilities for study. The school board added one more elementary school but removed the junior high schools from the list.
They decided that no junior or senior high school could be considered for closing until the board adopts a new policy on the reorganization of junior and senior high schools. Any high school named after that time cannot be closed until June of 1979 at the earliest, the board added.
"This is the third year of this painful process," said Bernardo in reference to the five-month procedure of reviewing schools that may be closed. The board has closed 16 schools in the past two years as county public school enrollment, which has dropped by 14,000 in the past six years as the result of the lower nation wide birthrate, continues to decline.
"If any school does get named tonight," board president Herbert Bennington said at the board's meeting, "it is just the beginning of a due process. It's not that the sword will fall."
The meeting was attended by five hundred people, including parents and teachers wearing tags stating the names of their schools. They listened to the five board members present debate the manner in which to discuss school closing studies.
Board member Blair Ewing cautioned closing schools solely on the basis of declining enrollment. "There's a good deal more public planning going on than we thought," Ewing noted."The building of new single family homes is increasing."
Board member Verna Fletcher criticized the staff's evaluations of the schools to be studied. Fletcher said she had complaints, not with the 12 criteria which are used to judge whether or not a school should be studied for possible closing, but with the manner in which the evluations were presented.The criteria include projected enrollment, projected savings, the diversity of the educational programs, and the school neighborhood in terms of housing and racial balance.
"I have no idea how you decide what is good 'diversity' and what is bad 'diversity', Fletcher said. "The staff has listed 'some diversity' or 'little diversity' for schools with regard to the racial balance and the housing types in the neighborhoods. "I don't know what 'little' or 'some' is supposed to mean," Fletcher said.
The board's study of school closings will begin with the appointment of local evluation committees named from the communities involved. A public hearing on the merits of the general process that the school board now follows for studying schools for possible closing will be held October 20 at a time to be announced.
The schools named for study are Maryvale, Southlawn Middle, and Woodley Gardens in Rockville; Aspen Hill, Barnsley, Brookhaven, English Manor, Harmony Hills, and North Lake in the Aspen Hill area; Holiday Park, Kensington, and Rock Creek Palisades in the Kensington-Wheaton area; and Beverly Farms, Georgetown Hill, Lake Normandy, and Tuckerman in the East Potomac area.
Enrollment in Montgomery schools during the past six years has changed dramatically. Public school enrollment has decreased from 93,929 in 1971 to the estimated figure of 73,098 in 1977 for the down county area which includes Potomac, Rockville, Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Wheaton, Kensington, Takoma Park, and Silver Spring.
In the northeast section of Montgomery County and in Gaithersburg and farther north, public school enrollment rose from 31,825 in 1971 to an estimated 39,264 in 1977.
Montgomery County school officials estimate that enrollment down county will slide from 73,098 this year to 54,929 in 1982, a drop of roughly 33 per cent. However, in upper Montgomery County, enrollment will go from 39,264 this year to 38,925 in 1982, an almost negligible drop. The secondary school enrollment in that area will go from 8,426 to 10,451, an increase of 20 per cent, according to the county's projections.