The firing of the Kent County High School principal this spring has touched off the biggest ruckus in this small Eastern Shore county since revolutionary patriots dumped tea in the Chester River more than 200 years ago.
In the two years before he lost his job as head of the county's only high school, principal Christian Lehr had restored law and order to a rural school beset with familiar urban problems of discipline, drugs and truancy.
He accomplished this writ with a five-fold increase in suspensions, 227 in a school of 1,160 students this academic year. And his tactics won the strong support of the county teacher's union.
But when Lehr was fired, at the be-hest of School Supt. Richard L. Holler, the ensuing debate dwelt only briefly on educational issues. It then escalated to arguments over personalities, politics and unionism, unsettling the tranquil surface of Maryland's least populous county.
By last month, one local editor in this county of 16,000 was wistfully lamenting, "The problems of society have come to Kent."
All the personal, political and philosophical differences normally dormant here have erupted with volcanic force with the firing of the 30-year-old Lehr. In the process, traditional alliances have been skewed and friends and families divided.
"I'm only one of many put in a very awkward position," said Diane Moffett, secretary to Supt. Holler and the niece of Lehr's biggest booster. "Let me say this," said her uncle, C. Franklin Davis, "Ms. Moffett is a fine lady. I have not been in close contact with her during all this."
Davis is head of the newly formed Kent Concerned Citizens for Education (KCCE), which is backing Lehr as are the Kent County Farm Bureau, the high school Parent Teacher Association and honor society and the teachers union.
On the other side, the local American Legion commander, who might be expected to back the conservative-minded principal, had formed "Save Our Schools" in support of Holler and taken to the local airwaves to denounce "union bosses" who support Lehr. Holler is an active member of the Legion post.
Since the battle began, KCCE has asked to see school board travel vouchers, charged the board's president with conflict of interest and targeted Supt. Holler and three appointed board members for removal. The real issue, declared KCCE leader Davis, a state highway project engineer, is the 11-year reign of the superintendent he has publicly branded "a tyrant."
The real issue, insists Robert D. Liles, the pipe-smoking American Legion Commander, is unions - specifically the Kent County Teachers Association which backs Lehr and has reached an impasse in labor negotiations with Holler eight times in ten years.
"People over here hate unions, anyway," asserted Liles. "The more things are stirred up, the more people hate unions. Draft dodgers got so many people in this county stirred up and where are they now?"
Liles and other Holler supporters seek a cessation of hostilities while combatants on the other side speak of being "in for the duration."
"Dr. Holler is a tyrant who can't stand for people to oppose or question him," Davis told one gathering.
Davis, in turn, has been accused of using the controversy as a political stepping stone. He objects to this charge, but not too strenously. "I seek no political game at this time," he said. "I couldn't predict the future, let me say that."
Standing on what now appears to be the periphery of the battle zone is Lehr, unyielding in his ideological stance.
"I feel the school is here for those willing to meet us halfway," he said the other week. For those who aren't, Lehr has not hesitated to issue suspensions.
"The teachers feel he's fair, consistent and doing a good job," said Glenn Michael, a high school art teacher who heads what he prefers to call the teacher's "association."
Supt. Holler's supporters use the same adjectives to describe their man. Detractors of both men accuse them of the same failings, of being inflexible and uncommunicative.
"There are a lot of changes I've made in the 11 years I've been here," said Holler, who comes from Cumberland. "When you make decisions in a county of 16,000, well, the school system touches the lives of most people in one way or another."
A group of outside evaluators in 1974 reported "a considerable gulf between the superintendent and his well-staffed central office and the teaching faculty of the high school."
The evaluators reported an "extremely high" faculty turnover and said the administration needed to be more responsive to teacher concerns.
Lehr arrived from Delaware in 1977, by most accounts, the school's faculty was demoralized by serious drinking, drug, smoking and general discipline problems among students. Lehr cracked down hard. Some said too hard. They compared the born-again high school to "boot camp at Parris Island."
Some parents complained to Holler that the new principal had little time or patience to help students with behavioral or academic problems. They call him an "elitist."
This February, however, a county grand jury praised Lehr and recommended a state investigation of the Kent County Department of Education "due to the apparent lack of co-operation, communications, support and chain of command within the school system."
By the time - Lehr's two-year probation neared an end this spring, the school system was already polarized with Lehr and Holler at opposite poles.
At the April school board meeting, the three appointed members accepted Holler's recommendation to terminate Lehr's services. The two elected members, who won their seats with teacher's association backing, dissented.
The KCCE continues to press Holler and the board majority. The group is taking steps to incorporate, raising money, mapping media strategy. At the same time, it has asked the state to investigate Lehr's firing and demanded more public accounting of school funds.
It has even raised the specter of conflict of interest, noting that School Board President R. Benson DuVall, who has supported Holler throughout the debate, manages a local lumber company that has sold materials for use by vocational home-building calsses. DuVall has denied any conflict, but the lumber company has refused to sell any more lumber to the schools.
The whole fracas has been a bit much for H. Hurtt Deringer, the 43-year-old editor of the Kent County News, which has editorially supported Holler but also urged the various factions to try conciliation.
Comparing the current controversy to the Peloponnesian Wars, Deringer sighed, "It's not that we haven't had problems in the past, but . . . I'm afraid we're reaching the period where everyone wants to dissent. People are unwilling to accept the decision-makers."
Decision-maker Holler has said very little publicly, for fear of prolonging the controversy. "It's been the toughest six weeks of my life," he said, adding that he is undecided whether to seek reappointment when his term expires next year.
Lehr, meanwhile, is finishing up the school year with a new-found celebrity status but without a job for the fall. He has, however, lined up summer work - as a bricklayer here in Kent County. CAPTION: Picture 1, Principal Christian Lehr's tactics won strong support from the Kent County teachers union; Picture 2, School Supt. Richard L. Holler recommended the dismissal of Lehr, by Larry Morris - The Washington Post; Map, no caption, The Washington Post