A bitterly divided Prince George's County Board of Education last week rejected a proposal to eliminate the busing of most county elementary school children, but its sponsor vowed to reintroduce the measure at the board's August meeting.
Under the plan, children living, in "integrated communities" would be able to go to the elementary school nearest their home, rather than being bused. The definition of an "integrated community" would be one in which the minority population ranges from approximately 20 to 70 percent.
The county's black population, now nearly 50 percent, has practically doubled since court-ordered desegregation busing began here in 1973.
The resolution also provides that at those schools where enrollment declined because of the busing change, special academic and vocational programs would be offered to attract students from other parts of the county.
After a heated, two-hour debate, the board voted down the proposal 5-3 amid some unsuccessful parliamentary maneuvering, flared tempers and political accusations. But board member Lesley Kreimer, realizing the measure would not pass, had to vote against her own resolution so that under school board procedure she can reintroduce it at the board's next meeting.
"Of course I'll keep this fight going," she said. "I'm disappointed, but I'm not going to quit."
This is the second busing reduction proposal rejected by the school board in less than a year. Kreimer estimated that unless the board has a change of heart on her proposal, it could be another two years before any change in busing policy takes effect.
At last week's meeting, the fate of the proposal fate became tied to another controversial issue - school closings. Earlier in the evening, the board failed to pass a resolution that would allow School Superintendent Edward J. Feeney to proceed with plans to study school closings. Board Chairman Norman H. Saunders cast the deciding vote.
But during a five-minute recess, Saunders said Feeney convinced him that he had made the wrong decision. "I reconsidered. It's as simple as that," Saunders said after the recess as he attempted to revive the earler proposal.
He did so by offering an amendment to Kreimer's resolution that would have "held in abeyance" her busing plan until the school closings study was finished and acted upon. Kreimer said she had no assurance that her proposal, which was to have been studied and implemented by March 1979, would ever be adopted, let alone in time for the 1979-80 school year.
"It's a matter of priorities," she said. "My preference is to do something about busing, to stabilize our neighborhoods before we start closing schools."
The amendment failed by one vote, with Kreimer abstaining. Some board members, including Saunders, were incensed that Kreimer had not accepted the compromise. Saunders lashed out at Kreimer.
"Because of nit-picky technicalities, you've now loused up a perfectly good proposal," he told her. "And you're damn right I'm irritated."
When Kreimer tried to mollify irritated board members by offering an amendment to adopt her proposal but implement it only after the school closings question was resolved. Saunders refused to entertain it, saying it was virtually identical to the amendment that had just failed. Sensing that she had alienated several of her colleagues, Kreimer attempted to table her proposal, but no other board member would second that motion.
The debate on Kreimer's proposal was spirited. Board member Sue V. Mills accused Kreimer, who is running for re-election, of political opportunism. Board member A. James Golato said he favored the concept of reduced busing but added, "The way this resolution is presented in such unclear language I can't see how it could ever suceed." Both voted for it anyway.
Reminded by Feeney that there will be 19,000 empty elementary school seats next year, most board members agreed that the issue of school closings should take precedence over busing.
"We have to do first things first," said JoAnn T. Bell. "For a year and a half now we've had excess seats in county classrooms. We have to get rid of those excess seats."
Kreimer's proposal was defeated, leaving the board in a quandry since both the busing and school closing study measures had been defeated. Waiving its normal procedure of voting on a resolution only once per meeting, the board re-voted on the question of studying school closings, and this time it passed by a 6-1 vote.
Under that proposal, Feeney and his staff must select areas for study and then form community task forces to examine possible elementary school closings. The task forces must complete their work by the end of the year, when public hearings will be held to evaluate their recommendations. The board will then vote in February and March 1979 on which schools, if any, to close the following school year.
This was the basic procedure used two years ago when the board decided to close 10 schools. Feeney has estimated that the board may have to close another 10 to 12 schools this year.
As for busing, Kreimer said she wants to continue her fight. She said she has no idea how many children would be affected by her plan, but demographic statistics show that two-thirds of all county elementary schools are located in "integrated communities," as defined by Kreimer.
The defeat of her proposal comes at a time when some board members consider countywide school busing unnecessary in areas where an influx of minorities has integrated previously segregated schools. Prince George's changing population patterns, due largely to the moves of minorities from the District and an exodus of whites to other suburban areas, have left county schools with a 40.7 percent black population, as opposed to 24.9 percent five years ago.