Prince George's County School Board Chairman Norman H. Saunders secretly offered last month to block the closing of a predominantly black elementary school in exchange for two black leaders' support of his plan to reduce school busing, according to the two men.
John J. Williams and Reginald A. Jackson, who are among the black parents whose 1972 lawsuit resulted in the county's controversial busing plan, said Saunders' offer to keep Randolph Village Elementary open came at an April 6 meeting at a Lanham hotel.
At the time, Saunders was trying to salvage a proposed "memorandum of understanding" between the school board and county black leaders. The plan would have curtailed busing in recently intergrated neighborhoods.
Williams and Jackson said they refused to sign the proposed memorandum and accused Saunders of trying to make a political deal. Two weeks later, Saunders joined the majority of the school board in voting to close Randolph Village, the future of which had become a heated and racially tinged issue.
Saunders said yesterday that he did tell Williams and Jackson that Randolph Village would not be closed if they agreed to the memorandum of understanding, but added, "I didn't guarantee it."
"I told them that I would bet them $100 to a doughnut hole that if the memorandum were successful, the board could not close the school," Saunders said.
Asked why he eventually voted to close Randolph Village, Saunders said, "That's my decision. Things do change, times do change, people do change."
In making the offer to Williams and Jackson, Saunders was attempting to link two of the most sensitive issues then facing the school board.
The closing of Randolph Village was opposed by many black leaders, who argued that board member A. James Golato recommended the school for closing only to end the busing of a predominantly white group of children from the Kettering area.
Since the board's vote the closing has been appealed to the state Board of Education by a group of parents who say that the county board ignored its own guidelines and acted irresponsinly in shutting down the school.
At the same time as the board was debating the future of Randolph Village, Saunders and other board members were already devising plans to change the county's busing program, which has divided both the county and the school board for the last seven years.
School board members said yesterday that Saunders' offer to the black leaders will intensify pressure on the board chairman to explain his attempts to find support for the memorandum of understanding. The plan was negotiated and initialed by Saunders and county NAACP President William Martin without the involvement or knowledge of either the NAACP or the other board members.
School board member Susan B. Bieniasz has already sent two letters to Saunders questioning his authority to handle the busing negotiations without first gaining the board's approval.
Bieniasz has also asked Saunders to give the board written accounting of the school board money he spent preparing and negotiating the memorandum, and the amount of time the board's attorney, Paul M. Nussbaum, spent on the busing plan at Saunders' request. So far, Saunders has refused to comply.
Board member Golato said yesterday that Saunders did not tell him about his assurances to the black leaders. "If he did make that statement, he didn't have a right to do it," Golato said.
"it's just another indication of the danger of one person going too far on a busing plan on his own," Golato said. "The NAACP feels that Martin proceeded too far, and I suspect that most of the people on the board now feel that way about Saunders."
On the recommendation of the local branch, the national NAACP recently suspended Martin from his position as local president because he negotiated the busing plan without the approval of other NAACP officials.
Martin's suspension, NAACP leaders said, effectively killed the memorandum of understanding. Saunders, however maintains that the plan is "still alive."
Williams, Jackson and local NAACP officals, who are opposing both the memorandum of understanding and two other busing plans the board is considering, now say that Saunders and Nussbaum attempted to exert unfair pressure during the negotiations.
Williams, a teacher at Fairmont Heights High School, said that he met with Saunders and Nussbaum several times and tried to revise their busing plan so it would be acceptable to other black leaders. But he said he did so only because, as a school employee, he felt vulnerable to Saunders' pressure.
In one instance, he said, Nussbaum called Fairmont Heights and told Williams' supervisors to excuse him from his teaching for half a day so he could attend a meeting in Nussbaum's office. The meeting turned out to be another effort by Nussbaum to persuade Williams to sign Saunders' agreement, Williams said.
"I had no choice but to go, because he called my principal as the board attorney," Williams said. "He didn't tell the school what he wanted me for, and my supervisors thought I was in some kind of trouble."
Nussbaum yesterday denied Williams' charge. He said that Williams requested the meeting, and asked Nussbaum to call Fairmont's principal after learning that schedule conflicts prevented an evening meeting.
Both Jackson and Williams said that Saunders made it clear in their meetings that he was willing to make political trade-offs - such as the vote on Randolph Village - to ensure the success of his plan.
"I'm playing politics," Jackson quoted Saunders as saying. "My political life won't be worth a plugged nickel if I don't get this signed."
Saunders denied making the statement. "I said that I was not playing politics," he said.
"It's very sad that people like Mr. Williams and Mr. Jackson didn't see it was time to step forward and join in," Sauners said at a different point yesterday. "But we don't need John Williams or the [other] plantiffs [in the 1972 suit]."The memorandum is still alive and we will move forward without them."