It's just four weeks until a new school year begins in Prince George's County and soon, inside 226 buildings, 13,000 teachers and staff workers will be stocking textbooks, chalk and hall passes for the business of education.
Already, in fire stations, tearooms and community centres around the county, six men and three women are diligently tending the business of Prince George's school politics: busing, school closings and classroom discipline.
One week after they pack their children off to classrooms, thousands of county residents will go to the polls to begin the process of electing three representatives to the nine-member school board. Seats in District 2, 5 and 8 will be decided by the Sept. 12 primary and subsequent general election.
In the next year, the county schools [WORD ILLEGIBLE] will probably consider shutting down as many as a dozen elementary schools due to declining enrollment. This fall, planners expect that the system's 66,000 elementary students will be surrounded by 19,000 empty classroom seats despite the shutdown of 10 elementary schools last year.
In addition, the board will almost certainly continue to grapple with new plans for busing. Since court-planned busing began in 1973, many previously segregated areas of the county have become racially balanced, and school officials now almost unanimously favor a revised busing strategy based on the new demographics.
Over the past five years the black student population has jumped from 28 percent to 42.6 percent of the total public school student body, while minorities now make up 30 percent of the county population.
Under the boundaries drawn by the court, this population shift has resulted in the resegregation of some schools. Under the original court plan, no elementary school had a minority population of more than 50 percent of the student body. Last year 62 elementary schools had black majorities.
Meanwhile the county bused 85,411 students last year at an estimated cost of $12 million.
Six of the seven challengers and both incumbents for the school board seats believe that some alteration in the court busing plan is inevitable. And each concedes that some school closings may be unavoidable.
But like the current board members, the candidates are deeply divided over when, and by what means, the changes will come about.
The divisions in the county over the proper way to approach the busing and school-closing questions have surfaced in practically every school board meeting this year. Twice, the board has tabled plans to remove thousands of elementary students from the busing lists.
During the last month's meeting, a plan by Lesley Kreimer - the incumbent in the second district - to return thousands of students to neighborhood classrooms while creating special "magnet" programs at some schools was tabled after an acrimonious debate.
Then, a proposal by Suprintendent Edward J. Feeney to proceed with plans to study school closings independently from the busing issue was accepted-after being voted down twice earlier in the meeting. The impasse over busing - and an eventual decision on more school closings - could be resolved by this fall's elections. Kreimer, of Greenbelt, faces challenges from two strongly based opponents, and incumbent District 5 representative A. James Golato of Bowie will be tested in the November election by Dorothea A. Riley of Upper Marlboro.
Meanwhile, the decision of District 8 representative Sue Mills, of Oxon Hill, the board's most vocal conservative, to run the County Council has enticed four candidates into that primary race, two of them conservative and two liberal.
The non-partisan election next month will narrow the field in Districts 2 and 8 to the two highest vote-getters. Voters in all three districts will then choose one of two candidates in the November general election.
School board members have been elected to six-year terms since the first elected board in 1973, when Kreimer and Golato were first voted in. Three board places are filled every two years.
The closest primary race may be in the eighth district, a traditionally conservative area that extends from Branch Avenue west to the Potomac and covers much of the southern part of the county, including the Oxon Hill and Camp Springs areas.
Emerson Markham, 50, of Camp Springs, a budget director for the federal ACTION program, has been chairman of the County Council of PTAs' budget committee for six years, and campaign literature pictures him working with County Executive Winfield M. Kelley Jr.
A fiscal moderate, Markham believes that some county schools "will certainly have to be closed," and says the way to accomplish the task is through "broad community participation." He feels that "over time, we've got to change the busing law, but the law has to be obeyed first and foremost."
Markham would expand programs for "talented and gifted" students. He said that his 26 years of experience as a budget manager in government gives him the edge over the other candidates.
In contrast, Angelo I. Castelli, 44, of Oxon Hill, has been endorsed by Mills and, according to his campaign manager, is "very philosophically attuned to Sue."
A trial attorney with the Department of Justice, Castelli is running under the slogan, "Education as a discipline." He says he is against the closing of neighborhood schools "unless the cost becomes prohibitive."
Castelli contends that "busing is not an issue." But he says that he's against "unnecessary busing."
He has called for "a return to the three Rs" of basic education in the schools and says that "it is a malfeasance to pass one child who has not learned the basics."
Otis Ducker, 49, of Oxon Hill, the director of the administrative services division of the National Institute of Health, was chairman of the community task force that looked into school closings in the Oxon Hill area last year.
Ducker feels that attempts by the county to close schools in Oxon Hill in the past have been politically motivated, and says the answer to many school problems is a "depoliticalization of the board."
Ducker also complains of "a failure to use good teachers and good administrators. We have failed miserably to establish credibility with them and the community." Ducker would create parent counseling programs throughout the schools and would try to involve students in administrative and disciplinary decisions.
He said the board's three plans during the past year to reorganize busing - only two were voted on - have been "three gimmicks." And he feels that "the bottom line is that some schools will have to be closed."
Eugene O'Brien, 57, of Temple Hills, served on the school board between 1959 and 1967 when membership was an appointed position. An insurance broker, he ran unsuccessfully in the 1973 school board election.
O'Brien feels the county could save $2 million by closing schools. The county school budget, he says, should be cut by "at least $5 million" immediately.
O'Brien's campign is based on his fiscal conservatism, he says, but he also feels that the county busing program is "sightseeing, not integrating, and not accomplishing anything."
Ducker said that he will be spending close to the $5,000 state limit on non-partisan capaigns. Castelli and Markham both said they hope to keep their budgets below $3,000, and O'Brien said he would not spend more than $500. Ducker is the only candidate who plans to buy radio advertising time.
Second district incumbent Kreimer faces a potential vote-getting problem in the College Park area which, along with Greenbelt and University Park, forms most of District 2. The College Park elementary school was closed by the board last year, with Kreimer voting for the move. Local residents filed a lawsuit against the board, but the case was dismissed.
"I hate to close schools, and I know I lost votes (in College Park)," Kreimer said. "But I could not vote to close any school and keep College Park open. It was very old and had just gotten too small."
One of her opponents, John L. Brunner, 32, of College Park, said that he shares some of Kreimer's views on busing, school closings and other issues. But Brunner, the city administrator of New Carrollton, said that he disagrees with her proposals for magnet schools to accompany a decrease in busing, and said that he feels Kreimer is "not aggressive or assertive enough. She's paralyzed on the board."
"I think people who say that mean I have never launched frontal attacks on those on the board who attack me," Kreimer responded. "I don't believe in attacking personalities."
Kreimer's other opponent is Muriel Weidenfeld, 45, of Greenbelt, a former member of the Maryland Human Relations Commission who worked on developing the special science curriculum at Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt.
Weidenfeld has composed a detailed plan on her approach to the busing problem, which involves extensive public hearings and study of the desegregation systems in other areas.
"Where our children go to school was never carefully designed by anyone," Weidenfeld said."The judge just imposed a pattern on us, and he is not an educator."
Weidenfeld said she believes she is the moderate in the race, with Kreimer to the left and Brunner to the right.
"I am prepared to go slow and take a scholarly approach to these problems," she said. "I have children in school, and I am not prepared to cut on their needs or on the needs of other kids."
Golato, whose huge fifth district encompasses most of the eastern area of the county, voted for Kreimer's busing proposal and continues to favor eventual busing changes.
Golato, 55, says that "busing students away from their neighborhood schools achieves nothing beneficial at great costs in scarce energy, heavy taxes and frustrated people."
Four schools were closed in Golato's district last year. He favors the closing of schools and adds, "I favor this same involvement in other districts now faced with this decision."
His opponent, Dorothea Riley, 42, is an Internal Revenue Service statistician and an active member of the Phyllis E. Williams Elementary PTA in Upper Marlboro. Riley contends that "our schools in this part of the county need attention but are not getting it."
Unlike the other board candidates, Riley says she is opposed to changes in the busing schedule.
"We simply cannot make real alterations in assignments without violating the court order," she said.