English teacher Sharon Snow says she expects "the odds stacked much better in my favor" today when she walks into her classroom at Redland Middle School in Rockville for the first day of the new school year.
Last year Snow had 30 to 35 students in each of her six classes in Room 44. The large classes overwhelmed her at times, making it difficult, she says, for her to impose the proper classroom discipline. This year, however, the classes will have between 15 and 28 students and she will have a wider range of novels and textbooks to assign.
It is enough, says Snow, to make her feel more creative-- "like a real teacher again."
The changes in Room 44-- which are taking place in thousands of other classrooms this year in Montgomery County schools-- are the visible products of the county school board's new majority. In the last nine months, that school board has sparked more classroom changes and controversy than any board in the last decade.
Indeed, the school board has become the major battleground for opposing forces representing two eras in Montgomery: The liberalism of the prosperous past and the conservatism of the budget-conscious present.
"The thing to do in the 1960s was provide as many educational services to as many as possible. In this decade budgets and basics have taken priority," said Paul Salmon, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "There are always sharp philosophical differences simmering in school districts. Montgomery County is only one expression of a national phenomenon."
When Carol Wallace, Eleanor Zappone and Joseph Barse joined president Marian Greenblatt on the board last December after their surprising victories in last year's election, they promised to oust superintendent Charles M. Bernardo, cut administrative fat, lessen the teachers' burdens and refocus attention on basic subjects in the classroom.
In many respects this new majority has done much of what it set out to do. While adding 62 new teachers this year to cut class sizes, the board saved that money and more by chopping 20 percent from the budgets of each of the system's five area administrative offices.
"It's been like along hard pregnancy," said Wallace. "We've given birth to a new superintendent along with a great many other things. We have much to be proud of."
But nearly every action has prompted stiff opposition. From the outset the majority was viewed as a threat by many minority parents and old hands in the education establishment who feared a total undoing of the progressive programs they helped create during more prosperous times in Montgomery a decade ago.
Those views are strongly represented on the board by minority-faction members Daryl Shaw, Elizabeth Spencer and Blair Ewing, who said the new majority constitutes "the most shameful, regressive force in the county today."
"The animosities this board has created are just unnecessary," Shaw said. "I've never felt petty politics and education mixed very well, but these people obviously think different."
The new board majority demonstrated it meant business back in December, when it pledged to steer the system onto a more moderate course and cut back on a number of innovations inspired by Bernardo.
Not only did Greenblatt and her compatriots sharply halt Bernardo's experimental computer-assisted instructional program and strike down a mandatory course in black culture for school employes, but they also ousted Bernardo himself.
His replacement, Edward Andrews, is a longtime, well-regarded school of- ficial who appears to be lending the system the stability the new majority seeks. But Andrews himself is cautious in his assessment of the board.
"I'm not sure whether you'd call it a tragedy or a comedy," he remarked.
Many black and Hispanic parents, who feel abandoned or ignored by the majority, would call it the former.
"The disadvantaged, the handicapped and every single minority is being victimized by this board," said former board member Roscoe Nix.
Some longtime education activists have suddenly found themselves outsiders as well. One activist accused the board of harboring "Nixoniam paranoia, with mental enemies lists and everything." She pleaded not to be identified, saying, "I've got to still try to work with them."
In the past, members of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs held influential positions on school board advisory committees. Under the reign of the new majority, the council's influence has been largely eclipsed by conservative organizations such as the Montgomery County Taxpayers League and Montgomery County Citizens for Education.
One member of the PTA council went so far as to say that "besides the Archie Bunkers in the county, the only people they [the majority] will listen to are Mike Goodman and Mickey Greenblatt."
Greenblatt is the board president's husband. Goodman is chairman of the citizens for education. Marian Greenblatt scoffed at the charge. "That's a male chauvinist remark that doesn't merit an answer," she said.
Goodman, nevertheless, remarked that for the first time in years there are members of the board who will listen to him.
"It's not like I bark and they listen," he said. "But I've known Carol Wallace for a long, long time and I know I can pick up the phone and talk to her for as long as I want. This board and I are compatible."
The value of Goodman's favor was not lost on Brian Berthiaume earlier this year when he attempted to gain board approval for a model drug rehabilitation school which he now heads.
"I found out whose ears were important to get to and he was one. I went, he listened," Berthiaume said.
Some members of the County Council, meanwhile, say the new majority's concentration on campaign promises is myopic and provokes unnecessary tensions in the county.
"Honest politicians don't make too many promises," said Council president Neal Potter. "When you try to fulfill them all, you do so at the expense of forcing confrontations. Someone is always left out."
Potter gave the following example: Earlier this year the board placed a Woodward High School auditorium construction project at the top of a list of priority items for state funding.
One of the other projects included construction of a new junior high school to serve the heavily enrolled northern portion of Montgomery.
The Woodward area provided a large base of support for Wallace, Barse and Zappone during last year's election. "That's caused trouble all along," Potter said. "The board was blatantly paying a political debt to the Woodward community, even though other projects were equally if not more important."
The state eventually refused to fund any of the board's projects. Potter contends that the state's interagency funding committee would have looked much more favorably on the urgently needed school construction project than on the Woodward auditorium.
Last month, the County Council bailed the board out by agreeing to use local funds to build the school.
The most recent controversy flared up last month when the board mandated countywide final examinations in mathematics and English for high school seniors. Grades on the standardized test will be recorded on report cards, but will not be taken into consideration in final grades.
Greenblatt, the sponsor of the move, said officials would be able to tell from exam results whether academic achievement is consistent at all county high schools.
During a recent meeting she said the tests would benefit teachers especially. "This will free them to work on other things," she said.
Many black parents were infuriated, however. "First the board takes away an important course in human relations and understanding," said Nix, referring to the mandatory course in black culture. "That was the first slap in our face. Then they institute standardized tests that everyone knows will only reward the elite and stigmatize the disadvantaged."
Montgomery County Education Association president David Eberly was not pleased, either. In fact, the union opposed the action, arguing that teachers needed to prepare their own final exams.
There were grumbles from other union officials who felt the board was behaving arrogantly. "I get kind of upset when people tell us what's good for teachers, when we're their representatives," Eberly said.
Eberly said the real test of the board's determination to assist teachers will come next month when the union and the board begin negotiations on employe contracts. MCEA will ask for 15 percent salary increases for teachers and administrators.
"Giving us more textbooks and smaller class sizes is fine," said Joseph Monte, head of the Montgomery County Federation of Teachers. "But we'll see in October if the quality of education here can really be maintained."