The nametags filed slowly by - orange and green apples for Tuckerman Elementary School, yellow daisies for English Manor and red and white snowmen for Brookhaven.
A few voices broke or rang high as parents in Montgomery County argued against closing their schools. But there were no emotional scenes. Only a handful of parents even mentioned the possiblity of heartbroken children shuttled off to a strange school. In front of the school board, the parents were all business - business backed by hard and cold facts, not tearful children.
The issues this year? Handicapped children, school boundaries, cost effectiveness.
For nearly five years, the Montgomery County school board has been listening to parents protesting proposed school closings. Except for 1975, the board has closed schools every year since 1973 when the first sharp enrollment decline forced the board to close an intermediate school. The enrollment decline has not abated and the board already has closed 17 schools. By next fall the system expects to lose another 3,500 students.
Because of its announced intention to close six more schools this spring, the board has spent another winter of listening to more than 10 hours of parents' testimony. One blessing has come out of the hearings this winter: It is the shortest amount of time the board has had to spend on the subject in the past five years.
Each community believes its schools and its children have unique problems. But in the past two weeks testimony against closing several of the schools has often followed similar patterns. Parents from each school have hit hard on the same argument: Their schools should not be closed because of special programs for children with visual, hearing or learning disabilities.
The arguments as well as the public hearings are well planned. At each hearing, there is a set agenda, with time schaduled down to each five-minute interval.
Speakers are assigned three, four, five, 10 or 15 minutes of time depending on whether they speak as an individual or for a group. Timed lights and a stop watch guard over the speakers, leaving little room for deviation from the schedule.
Those testifying seem know every groundrule and the details of the school reports on the recommended closings. Instead of emotional outbursts about the effect of the closings on children torn away from their friends and playmates, parents in Montgomery County usually come prepared with as many, if nor more, statistics than the school board researchers. It is statistics that parents attack, pointing out what they say are mistakes or inconsistencies in the reports prepared by the school staff.
"The conclusion of the staff is based on eight factors," began Harold Diamond from the community around the Aspen Hill Elementary School. "Some consider marginal educational factors . . . . We think the facts should have been weighted."
Many of the mistakes attributed to the school staff seemed to be the same from school cluster to school cluster - for example, most speakers said instead of closing their schools, it would be much easier to let students at other schools walk or ride the bus, safely and conveniently, to the school recommended for closing.
The school staff looked at eight major factors, such as enrollment, transportation routes into the school area, modernization needed, amount of money saved, when they recommended which schools might be closed. They diagrammed the factors versus the schools, giving the schools plus or minus marks next to each factor, in what they call a matrix.
Parents, having scrutinized these matrices, told board members many of the matrices had mistakes. Some parents came with their own matrices.
"We will provide a revised evaluation, which . . . avoids the errors in the superintendent's report," said Barry M. Klein, the chairman of the local committee from Potomac's endangered school, Tuckerman. He then proceeded quickly to show the board than 1) closing two other Potomac schools would stabilize Tuckerman's enrollment; 2) Tuckerman is the newest school in its school cluster; 3) Tuckerman, in a quiet cul-de-sac, would be less convenient for alternate uses, such as offices, than other schools on main roads, and 4) "Tuckerman is the least cost-effective school to close by more than $20,000 per year when compared to Lake Normandy and by more than $25,000 per year when compared to Georgetown Hill."
They were polite, courteous and very serious. Aspen Hill residents spewed statistics on how many more students would be bused to schools if Aspen Hill Elementary is closed. Parents of English Manor Elementary children told the board "nine out of 18 students at the last honor roll induction at Parkland Junior High were from English Manor."
English Manor committee chairman Carol Petzold told the board there were 68 students living near English Manor who were bused to Harmony Hills, farther away. If those students went to English Manor, the enrollment would go up, she said. Maps and overlays flew by. Graphs were help up. Projected figures of elementary school population in a new townhouse delevelopment near English Manor - the school staff's own figures, according to Petzold - were cited.
Some parents come with questions, well thought-out questions.
Special program teachers as well as the regular students and teachers and integral parts of the environment where handicapped children are taught, the parents argued. "Can you consider the effect on the auditorally impaired children?" asked Leona O'Reilly who has children enrolled in the auditory program at Holiday Park, which the board voted last week to close. "Will there be concerned staff to see how to deal with one children? Will they be screened to see if the want to work with them?"
Through it all,the board members sat serious and expressionless - asking both parents and nearby staff members technical questions. Only once did that calm break. The charge from the Potomac resident that the superintendents recommendations were prejudicial and decided long before input from resdients brought forth anger.
"I take the data from you folks and I take the data from the staff, But make my own decisions," said board president Elizabeth Spencer, her voice breaking.
But in general, personal charges were not the order of the day. In the midst of the complex and technical testimony, the accusatory remarks provoked a mixture of nervous smiles and exchanged glances of embarrassment among the Potomac residents in the audience.
It was as Spencer earlier called it "a process . . . I hope at some point you feel this process is fair."