Richard Motley had played Santa Claus in the Christmas program last year, and returned as the Easter bunny in April.And so, when the principal of New Carrollton's Robert Frost Elementary School was ordered to submit names for a task force studying school closings. Motley got a call.
The result: two weeks ago, Motley-now dressed in a brown corduroy suit-found himself presiding over 17 school officials, 35 citizens, and one sneezing poodle while the assemblage methodically advanced toward a recommendation that will most likely determine the future of seven schools and 2,400 elementary pupils.
The transformation from interested parent to school planner was not easy. I've been spending probably 40 hours a week on this," said Motley, who spends his days at the federal Department of Energy. "I've learned more about these schools than I would ever want to know."
But Motley is fulfilling a duty that the Prince George's County school board decided school be left, in large part, to parents and citizens: determining which of the county's elementary schools should be closed this year to compensate for a declining enrollment that has left 19,000 school seats vacant.
Motley's task force is one of 12 that have been meeting around Prince George's for the last month to examine the enrollment trends, facilities, busing schedules and operating costs of 69 elementary schools designated by the board for study.
The reports of the task forces are due Jan. 15, and the board will probably act on them in March. Last year, similar task forces recommended that eight schools be closed, and after the superintendent added four more to the list, the school board closed 10 schools. All eight recommended for closing by the task forces were closed.
Somewhat burdened with the implication that their recommendations could be crucial, the task forces are beginning their final month of deliberations, and most members, like Motley, are finding that the closing of a school is at once a more important, complicated and pressurized process than they had imagined.
"We've walked into an awful lot of authority," Motley said. "And we are going to have arguments, and make decisions that might upset people-our neighbors. But we have a job to do now, and we have to finish it."
The responsibility of the task forces is heightened by the board's decision to provide only four general guidelines for their work-allowing each group to study the schools and make its recommendations in almost any manner it wishes. "Technically, they could throw out all the information we give them and do whatever they want," says schools spokesman John Aubuchon.
And in recent weeks, the job of making an objective study of the pros and cons of closing each school has been toughened for task force members by growing outside pressure, both from neighbors convinced that a parent should not vote to close his own school, and from community groups opposed to the closing of any schools.
Recently, a group of about 30 calling itself the Organization of People for Educational Needs (OPEN) held a press conference to "raise questions" about the task forces' procedures and criteria. The "questions" were motivated group members said, by a sentiment already felt by many in the county-that no schools, no matter how underpopulated, should be closed.
OPEN has already served to increase the fears of Diane Wise, the chairman of a task force studying schools in the Bladensburg, Edmonston and Riverdale areas. "Even though my school [Edmonston Elementary] looks like the first one to close, I don't think I would vote to close it," she said. "It's simple peer pressure."
Like many of the four parents and citizens from each school who make up the voting membership of the task forces, Wise began work "with the attitude that my school would close over my dead body."
But as she reviewed dozens of studies of costs and facilites and toured each school, Wise became more objective. "Our school was built in 1915, and as I looked at some of the other schools in the area that were built recently, I realized our students has been shortchanged," she said. "I just had never realized it."
"Now the handwriting is on the wall," she said. "But I'm sure if we vote to recommend a closing, there will be a lot of impassioned speeches, and all of us [from Edmonston] will vote against if."
Denese Montgomer, who represents Capitol Heights Elementary in another inner-Beltway study group, said, "I had to have a talk with myself."
"But I made up my mind that I have to look at the facts, as objectively as I can. And if my school is closed, I'll just see to it that my kids go to a school that's just as good. I can grow to love that school just as much as I love mine now," Montgomery said.
Many of the task forces have responded to the dilemma of having to pick among their own children's schools by adopting rigid methods that have, in some cases, translated the board's guidelines into mathematical formulas.
Motley's group, for example, started with the school board's four suggested areas of study-student enrollment, transportation distance and busing, physical facilities and operating costs, then dreamed up 60 more criteria for consideration.
Eventually the number of factors was pared to six-"each of which could be determined, factually," Motley said-and the schools were ranked and assigned point according to how they stacked up in each different area.The schools were them mapped by points on a large grid.
After each school's representative has submitted a report explaining that school's high or low point ranking and including other information, a steering committee made up of one citizen from each school will draft a "preliminary" recommendation to the superintendent, based on the rankigs and school reports, Motley said.
Following the board's guidelines, one of those subcommittees usually studies "transportation"-or the number of students bused to each of the elementary schools.
Most task force chairman say that busing will have an effect on their decisions; schools with a high percentage of bused-in students are usually considered more likely to be closed than schools whose enrollment is largely made up of pupils from the immediate neighborhood.
The school closing procedures will not directly change the five-year-old county-wide busing plan, however. The school board voted last summer to consider its busing program only after the school closing questions have been decided.
Other task forces have adopted more flexible procedures. One in the eastern part of the county is touring each school, then discussing its merits, with one school being the topic at each meeting. Another task force in Beltsville alreay has begun taking straw votes on schools to be closed, and task forces have simply broken into four subcommittees to report on how each school is meeting each of the board's four general guidelines.
Most of the groups, members say, are delaying their votes on recommendations-or even their decisions on how to vote on recommendations-until the final weeks. "We have to spend as much time as we can gathering essential facts," explained Roland Ekstrom, chairman of a task force in the Oxon Hill area.
"Because sublimely, we would all like to believe that when all is said and done our school will still be open. But you're never going to convince someone pound-for-pound that your feelings are more important than their feelings."
In the end, most task force chairmen are expecting the feelings to bubble up-both from the strain of weeks of work and the pressure of partisanship, both inside and outside. "I've been amazed at the professionalism and the seriousness with which the people have worked," said Motley. "But there will be fights before we get through."
"It's interesting," observed Blair Overton, who serves as the superintendent's liaison with Motley's task force, "twenty years from now, some people will still be bitter about what happens on some of these task forces."
"But their kids will know nothing about it. They'll adjust the first day they go to the new school."