Two proposals to reduce court-ordered busing for Prince George's County elementary school students appeared nearly dead yesterday following word from county school board member Sue V. Mills - an ardent busing foe - that she was withdrawing her support from the measures.
Mills said she will attempt to have the reduced busing proposals put aside indefinitely at next Thursday's board meeting. She said three public hearings this week demonstrated that county residents are overwhelmingly against the proposed changes.
"I pushed the proposals from the beginning, and I still think the concept is sound," said Mills. "But the message has come through loud and strong to me that Prince George's is not ready to accept such a plan of action."
At least four other school board members. Jo Ann Bell, Maureen Steinecke, Bonnie Johns and Susan Bienasz, indicated in interviews yesterday that they agreed with Mills' assessment and would probably support her move to table the proposals.
If that happens, the school system next year will use the same attendance plan that has been in effect since 1973, when the federal court mandated a large-scale busing operation to desegregate the county schools.
The proponents of the revised busing plan have argued that the racial distribution of the county has changed so markedly over the last five years that the court-ordered busing is now further segregating, rather than integrating, many of the schools.
A defeat of the proposals would also give renewed hope to parents who have been fighting to keep open 11 schools that would be closed next year under the plans.
The two reduced busing proposals - referred to as demographic studies - were drafted by Supt. Edward J. Feeney last fall at the direction of the school board. They showed, among other things, that the county's black student population had increased from 24.9 percent to 40.7 percent over the past five years and that, as a result, 62 schools had enrolled more than the court-ordered maximum of 50 percent black student populations.
The purpose of the proposals was to reduce the amount of busing and the number of majority-black schools at the same time. Under both measures, 11,000 elementary students who now take buses to school would be allowed to walk to neighborhood schools. In addition, the number of majority black schools would be reduced by 14.
The school board accepted Supt. Feeney's suggestion that they attempt to garner a "broad consensus of approval" from the community before moving to implement either of the alternative plans.
As a result, the school board set up six public hearings - the three held this week and three more next week. Mills estimated that 95 percent of the speakers at the first three hearings opposed the proposals, hardly the "broad consensus of approval" that Feeney had been seeking.
The ad hoc organizations from the 11 threatened schools joined with a coalition of black leaders and the County Council of PTAs in the fight against the proposals. They jammed the three public hearings with hundreds of people who peppered the school board members with various negative arguments.
Some argued that the school closings should not be linked to the proposals to reduce busing. Some argued that the reduced-busing plan would result in schools with more than 90 percent black student enrollments. Some argued that the parents and teachers were not given enough time to digest the proposed changes and some argued that the proposals were politically motivated.
"The one thing people dislike is change and dissruption," said school board member Steinecke, summarizing what she had heard at the public hearings. "It was abundantly clear that the people perceived these proposals as change and disruption rather than as a stablizing effort."
Steinecke said she became convinced of the depth of the opposition last Tuesday night when the county council of PTAs - representing more than 25,000 parents - voted unanimously to oppose the implementation of the proposals. "The handwriting is on the wall, quite frankly," said Steinecke.
Johns, who had fought the reduced-busing plan from the beginning, said she was "amazed" to hear that Mills had now dropped her support. "That is a very sudden change," said Johns. "I'm surprised and delighted."
Mills, who has announced her intentions to seek a seat on the County Council this fall, was critized at the public hearings for using the reduced-busing proposals as a campaign springboard.
"We know the games being played," said state Sen. Tommie Broadwater, the leader of the predominantly black 25th Legislative District at Tuesday night's hearing at Largo Senior High School. "The nine of you should face up to the one or two board members who are pushing this thing as an attempt to run for office."
"I just discount that kind of talk," responded Mills. "It doesn't figure into my thinking at all. My personal advocacy for reduced busing has been unfaltering through the years. If there is anything political in this issue, it is the overflamboyant participation of some elected officials like Broadwater."
Two board members reached yesterday, Chairman Norman Saunders and A. James Golanto, said they were against Mills' move to table the proposals before the last of the public hearings would be held.
"It seems to me to be a farce to schedule public hearings, then not extend the courtesy to hold off on a decision until all the hearings are held," said Golato. "I don't disagree with the substance of what she (Mills) is saying, but I don't think she's acting properly."
Several opponents of the proposals said they were so taken aback by Mills' change of heart that they suspected she might have another political motive. "It seems to me that she might be trying to drum up support for the proposals for the next two public hearings," said a leader of an ad hoc parents' group attempting to save J. Frank Dent Elementary School. "Everything else has failed for them.This might be a last-ditch effort."
Mills said her plan to put aside indefinitely the proposals was firm. She added, "I think somewhere out there in the county there are people who support this demographics proposal. I can't really say why that support hasn't materialized. Maybe it's apathy."