After a year of study and months of public pressure, the Prince George's County school board decided last spring to attack separately two critical and interrelated problems facing county schools -- busing and declining enrollment.
First, the board decided it would determine which schools in the county should be closed after allowing citizen task forces to have a key role in choosing the schools. Only after school closings, the board said, would it try to reorganize the five-year-old county busing plan.
Last Thursday, in the space of 35 minutes, board members changed their minds. One after another, three school board members -- Norman H. Saunders, Angelo Castelli and A. James Golato -- suggested elementary schools to be added to a list of 17 already being considered for closing.
In each case, the rest of the nine-member board agreed. Andrews Air Force Base Elementary, Owens Road Elementary, and Randolph Village became candidates for possible closing when the board votes on this question next month.
By abruptly adding these schools to its list, the board:
Ignored the criteria it had established for selection of such schools. The task forces had four criteria -- enrollment, transportation distance, operating cost savings, and quality of physical facilities.
Circumvented the elaborate procedure it established last spring to involve citizens in all school closings. Under this plan, schools with enrollments under 80 percent were grouped into clusters, and a community task force with representatives from each school was appointed to decide the best course for every cluster.
Abandoned its stated intention not to allow efforts to tamper with busing patterns until after school closings had been voted on.
Subjected itself -- in the case it actually votes to close the three schools -- to possible court action for changing the racial distribution of students in selected areas of the county.
Rescinded its promise to citizens that it would not consider school closings in areas where schools were closed two years ago.
In each case, board members admitted they wanted to close the elementary school they added to the list in order to appease vocal constitutents or to fulfill promises made to specific communities in their election districts.
"The board can set policy," chairman Norman H. Saunders said later, defending the board's action."And if it desires, it can also set aside policy."
"As we put these things in," said board member Susan B. Bleniasz, shortly before the vote to add the schools, "we are breaking faith with the public. Our whole credibility is at stake."
The board's move away from its past policies began Thursday night when board member Saunders recommended that Andrews Air Force Base Elementary be considered for closing.
Andrews Elementary has never been studied for closing by a community task force. However, it is across the street from Camp Springs Elementary, which was part of a cluster of schools studied by a community task force this year. The task force recommended that no schools in the area be closed.
Superintendent Edward J. Feeney, following the board's policy of reviewing task force recommendations, recommended that Camp Springs be closed.
Camp Springs is enrolled this year at 55 percent of its capacity. Andrews Air Force Base Elementary is enrolled at 83 percent of its capacity. Saunders, who lives across the street from Camp Springs, says he recommended Andrews because he has promised Camp Springs parents he will try to keep their school open.
"I wouldn't have recommended Andrews Air Force base," Saunders said, "unless Camp Springs had been recommended by the superintendent.
"Military families have committed themselves to impermanance, to moving around," Saunders said. "In Camp Springs the families want stability. The Andrews families can better adjust to closing than those in Camp Springs."
His fellow board member, A. James Golato, put it another way. "It was a blantant political move," he said. "The people in Camp Springs vote for Saunders. The people on the Air Force base usually don't vote."
The second school, Owens Road Elementary in Oxon Hill, was recommended by board member Algelo Castelli. Ownes Road was not studied for closing this year, but was studied two years ago after Sue V. Mills, Castelli's predecessor on the board and his close political ally, recommended it for closing.
After a large-scale community movement by Owens Road parents, the board voted to keep the school open.
Castelli, who publicly announced that he supported a one-year moratorium on school closings three days before he recommended Owens Road for closing, has one reason for the school to be closed: "It's not a neighborhood school."
If Owns Road were closed, about 150 children -- about 65 percent of whom are white, according to 1977 school board figures -- would be returned back to their neighborhood school, Fort Foote Elementary. Two of Castelli's children attend Fort Foote Elementary. This year Fort Foote is 51.5 percent black.
Owens Road is 82.6 percent black, and enrolled at 99 percent of capacity, according to September 1978 figures. It is also the neighborhood school for 300 children, mostly black. The board must place these children elsewhere if Owens Road is closed.
I promised the people of Riverben Estates (one of the neighborhoods where children would be returned to Fort Foote from Owens Road) that I would stop the busing of their children if I could, and I will say that openly," Castelli said.
The chairman of the community task force that studied Owens Road in 1977 -- and recommended that it not be closed -- was Otis Ducker. Ducker was Castelli's opponent in a bitterly contested school board race last fall.
"We're being made patsies for political purposes," Ducker said recently. "What is going to happen to the 400-plus black kids who go to Owens Road now?" he asked. "Nobody has thought about that, obviously. Mr. Castelli is obviously very sensitive to the Fort Foote-Indian Queen elementary kids, who are predominately white, and totally insensitive to this community, which is predominately black."
Castelli responded to Ducker by insisting that most of the students who are bused to Owens Road from the Fort Foote area are black, and by pointing out that most of the students who attend Owens Road from surrounding neighborhoods already are being bused because of a lack of sidewalks in the area.
Board member Galato recommended the third school, Randolph Village Elementary, for closing. This year, Randolph Village is enrolled at 78 percent of capacity, and is 69 percent black. If Galato's plan were followed, children bused to Randolph from the Kettering area -- where there is a large antibusing movement -- would be returned to Kettering Elementary. In 1977, 59 of those children were white.
Kettering elementary, according to 1978 figures, already is 78 percent white. Board attorney Paul M. Nussbaum has told the board that it cannot selectively change the busing plan in one area of the county and increase the majority of white children at a school without inviting a court suit.
Randolph Village was studied with a group of schools in the area two years ago by a community task force. That unit recommended that another school in the area be closed, and the board closed the school. Until Thursday night, the board had a policy that it would not consider schools for closing in an area where a school was closed two years ago.
"It's not my fault," Golato said. "I didn't start this. I never would have recommended this school if other board members hadn't done the same thing."
"Yes, we are going back on our policy and making exceptions," Golato said. "but what the hell am I supposed to do? What are my constituents going to say if other board members do this, and I continue to follow the policy?"
The board will not necessarily vote to close Randolph Village, Owens Road and Andrews Air Force Base. So far, it has only voted to hold public hearings on possibly closing them. But each school has at least one strong advocate for closing on the board -- unlike any other school that has been recommended.
If the board does vote to close Randolph Village or Owens Road for reasons of changing the busing in those areas, they will face serious opposition from some county blacks, who threatened to sue to bring the county schools under court jurisdiction again when the board contemplated similar action last spring.
"If they take a positive action that increases segregation by changing busing selectively in one area, they will be subject to a court action," said Sylvester Vaughns, a leader of the county NAACP who filed the original desegregation suit against the board. "And I promise that they will get that court action."
Board members say they are not concerned. "I haven't heard any board member say that they wanted to close a school to change the busing," Saunders said.
"I would welcome a court suit," said Castelli. "That may be the only way we can get out of this mess and return our children to their neighborhood schools."