Norman H. Saunders, under fire for his methods in trying to negotiate reductions in school busing, now faces a move to oust as chairman of the Prince George's County Board of Education.
Four of the board's nine members have either asked him to resign from the chairmanship or are seeking a new election for the post; a fifth is leaning that way.
The movement to remove Saunders, which sources say has been brewing for weeks, surfaced in public Thursday night at a marathon school board meeting where members failed to agree on any of three proposals to reduce or examine the county's six-year busing program. Instead, they agreed to schedule a public "rap session" to discuss busing alternatives.
"I think it's evident that the integrity, the character of the board is really in question here," said member Angelo I. Castelli, who announced his plans to call for a reorganization of the board June 14. Castelli's statement, made toward the end of an emotional and sometimes bitter meeting, was the second board attack Thursday night on Saunders' leadership.
Earlier, during a closed session before the open meeting, board member Chester Whiting read a statement asking Saunders to resign. The statement, citing the chairman's negotiations with plaintiffs in the original busing suit, as well as other actions, drew a sharp response from Saunders, sources said.
The attacks came after months of sometimes tense controversy, centering on the issue of whether busing in Prince George's County should be reduced as neighborhoods become integrated. Saunder's efforts to negotiate a "memorandum of understanding" on curtailing busing with the local NAACP leader, William R. Martin, ultimately led to Martin's ouster as branch chairman. It was the circumstances of those talks conducted without board participation that now have fueled the drive to oust Saunders.
The effort comes at a time when the board has sustained other blows. Its recent decision to close 10 schools drew fierce opposition and one lawsuit. This Monday, it will tackle trimming its $288 million budget to the $278 million the county has agreed to provide.
Saunders, reached yesterday, said he was puzzled by the attacks on his leadership. "I honestly don't know what has created such an irritation. What is the issue? What is so agitating? Is the issue being clouded by something else?
Board members interviewed yesterday said the issue was the board's credibility in handling the extremely sensitive issue of school busing. "The black community no longer trusts whitey," said Castelli. His resolution would call for a new election for chairman as part of a general reorganization of the board. That resolution was drawn up the day of the meeting, sources said, after Castelli and other board members determined it was the only legal way to oust Saunders.
In addition to Castelli and Whiting, board member Susan Bieniasz supports the reorganization resolution; sources said member A. James Golato is leaning toward supporting it. Member Bonnie Johns said last night she would "like to see" Saunders resign and would support a vote to remove him from the chairmanship.
Bieniasz, indicating the resolution should be viewed in a "positive" light instead of as an anti-Saunders effort, said, "It would provide board members with a way of giving a vote of confidence."
Golato, while emphasizing he would "listen to the arguments that are made," said, "If the chairman is standing in the way (of reducing busing), I'm going to have to gently ask him to stand aside. . . . I think the issue is getting this busing thing resolved."
The Castelli resolution was drawn up, sources said, after members determined they couldn't vote to impeach Saunders. Castelli says state law calls for reorganization of the school board on Dec. 1, but "is silent" on whether the board can reorganize at other times.
Saunders, asked yesterday if he would challenge the resolution on legal grounds, said, "I haven't thought about it. I don't know the law."
Saunders' critics say disatisfaction with the chairman has been growing, and cite small incidents as well as the controversy surrounding the NAACP memorandum of understanding.
"I think that the general feeling is that they need a new leader," said Sue V. Mills, a former school board chairman who is now on the county council. "The board of education has become rather a circus."
"What's going on in Prince George's County has become extremely frustrating, when the Board can't agree, can't work as a unit," said Castelli.
He echoed the question raised by Bieniasz, who has asked Saunders and board attorney Paul Nussbaum for an accounting of how much was spent in Saunders' NAACP negotiations. Although Saunders has refused to reply, Nussbaum sent Bieniasz a letter this week saying he charged the board $1,425 for his work with Saunders.
Whiting repeated bieniasz's questions in his statement Thursday. He also critcized Saunders for bringing flag-waving ROTC students to a budget hearing, calling it " a cheap and tawdry spectacle," and said the chairman's actions had caused "embarrassment, frustration and humiliation beyond endurance."
But the final straw, sources say, was the Washington Post report Tuesday that Saunders had secretly offered to block the closing of a predominantly black elementary school in exchange for two black leaders' support of his plan to reduce busing.
Castelli, reportedly helped by Bieniasz, drew up his resolution and Whiting - independently, he says - drafted his statement.
Members yesterday stressed that was still possible the divided board could pull together behind Saunders. "I was very upset with (Castelli's) comment," said one, vice chairman Jo-Ann Bell, a Saunders backer."I am heartsick about it."
"I would hope (board members) would be big enough to forgive. Reasonable people are big enough to admit mistakes . . . I don't think there's any reason why the nine of us can't sit down and work this out," Bell said.
Her assessment was echoed by Joanne Brown, president of the Prince George's County Parent Teachers Association."I think there's enough trust in him (Saunders)," she said. "He's a good leader. Emotions (at the meeting) were high. People were very tired. I don't foresee any reorganization. I don't think its going to fly."