The dust had hardly settled from an emotional public hearing on one plan when school board member Susan Bieniasz introduced her own proposal for attacking the perennial bogeyman of the Prince George's County schools -- court-ordered busing for desegregation.
Bieniasz presented her plan to take 10,000 of the county's 16,000 elementary school students off buses and to close 14 schools at last week's school board meeting.
The session was held two days after speakers at a public hearing blasted a busing plan proposed by a board-appointed citizens advisory committee. The advisory committee plan would eliminate or shorten the bus rides of 3,800 elementary school pupils.
As in the past, emotion ran high when Bieniasz laid out her plan to school board members last week. Few members of the board or the audience had known what to expect of her proposal, which was the last item on the agenda and was mysteriously labeled "enrollment questions."
"Is this the way these (anti-busing) people operate?" said NAACP member Florence Rosser. "Surely they don't think they are getting away with anything, using tactics like these?"
Bieniasz shocked many of her fellow board members with her plan, which had been aired during the preceding week before civic and municipal leaders in her school district (4) which includes New Carrolton.
"My reason for bringing it to your attention tonight is the fact that we require every dollar that we have tied up in an empty classroom seat, and every educational program," Bieniasz told her peers. "The product that we are charged to produce is educated children, not buildings and buses."
The proposal she unveiled was a modified version of a neighborhood school plan abandoned by the advisory committee two months ago because it would create too many one-race schools.
To salvage the neighborhood plan, Bieniasz recommended the closing of what she said are one-race, under-enrolled schools in 14 clusters, and to provide busing in areas where other one-race schools might be created.
By Bieniasz' estimates, her plan would save the county $3 million and send 10,000 elementary school students, who are now being bused, back to their neighborhood schools. She said, however, that she needed help from the school board staff in checking her figures.
Support for the plan was well-orchestrated. Eight speakers, including several municipal leaders, defended the Bieniasz proposal. No one spoke in opposition because no one else knew in advance what the plan contained, and the deadline for signing up as a public speaker had passed.
In the face of negative reaction from other board members, though, Bienasz decided to delay final consideration of her plan until the board meeting next Thursday. But before that happened almost all of the issues that have divided the school board on the busing issue surfaced.
Bonnie Johns, the lone black voting member of the board (student member Sidney Moore has no vote) expressed concern about the impact of the plan on the racial balance in the schools. In the past, Johns has criticized the board for focusing too much attention on busing and too little on improving the quality of education in the county.
A. James Golato and other board members asked which schools would be closed. Angelo Castelli and Norman Saunders suggested that consideration of the Bieniasz proposal could sabotage the citizens' advisory committee plan. School board chairman JoAnn Bell tried desperately to keep the discusion on track.
Resegregation. School closings. Bad timing. These issues have divided the school board, and have scuttled past plans for reducing or ending busing.
Other divisive factors have been distrust of the board's intentions by civil rights groups and the black community, and what some observers view as a leadership vacuum on the board when busing is considered. The result is the formula for the failure and frustration that has wracked efforts to cut busing in recent years.
The failure has not been for lack of trying by the board. There was more activity around the issue in 1979 than there had been in any year since court-ordered busing commenced.
In the course of the year, several plans rose and fell in the heat of controversy. At one point, former school board chairman Norman Saunders and Superintendent Edward Feeney entered into an agrement with former NAACP president William Martin that would have eliminated most of the busing for purposes of desegregation in Prince george's.
That effort failed when other NAACP members accused Martin of negotiating without the authorization of either the local or the national branches. Martin eventually claimed that he had been "duped" by Saunders.
The brief spring reconciliation between the principal antagonists in the debate -- the NAACP and the school board -- ended when Martin was sacked by the NAACP. The two sides have never gotten back together.
Over the course of the last three years, the school board has considered a number of proposals to reduce busing. Most have revolved around the concept of the neighborhood school and all have failed. The most recent such plan was rejected last September.
The chief difficulty has been that most of the plans would heighten racial imbalance in the schools. While Prince George's is perhaps more residentially integrated than it was 10 years go, one-race neighborhoods still predominate.
A study commissioned by the board-appointed citizens' advisory committee showed that if Prince George's adopted a neighborhood school system, the number of one-race elementary schools -- defined as those in which more than 90 percent of the students belong to one race -- would increase from three to 34.
The board never examines such plans in isolation, either. Its members are very aware that the NAACP would probably go back to court if a plan were approved that adversely affected racial balances in the classrooms.
Of all the plans the board has considered in the past, the one now being proposed by the advisory committee appears to have the best chance of passage. It brings 3,800 students back to neighborhood schools, changing the racial balances of the schools involved by an average of only 5 to 7 percent.
But it is not a neighborhood school plan in the true sense of the word. What it does is to make technical changes in the present busing plan, eliminating as much cross-busing as possible.
In Prince George's, the term cross-busing generally refers to the transporting of black children to predominantly black schools miles away from their homes or the busing of any students out of integrated neighborhoods to other integrated schools miles across the county.
Such busing is primarily a result of the changing demographics of Prince George's, where a growing black population has integrated many previously all-white neighborhoods.
Earlier this week, the NAACP announced that it would oppose the advisory committee proposal because it adds momentum to the resegregation of schools caused by demographic changes in the county's population. Spokespersons for the group also pointed out that the plan failed to address the "real challenge" of desegregation: delivering a quality education for all students regardless of race.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the advisory committee plan is that its shifting of pupils will put some schools in jeopardy of being closed. Some board members are especially uneasy about this, because they wanted closings and busing proposals to be considered separately. However, the reassignments contained in the advisory committee plan make it clear that such a separation of the two issues may not be feasible.
Several board members may fear that some of the schools in their districts would be so under-enrolled under the new plan that they would eventually be closed, and they may be tempted to defeat it.
However, the present proposal, though modest in scope, appears to have a better chance of passage than any plan previously considered.
While it has drawn opposition from the ACLU and much of the black community because of its effect on racial percentages in classrooms, the plan does reduce busing without making the board an easy target in court.
Whether the problems of school closings, leadership, and mistrust in the black community will be solved is another question.
"It may not be possible for the board to come up with a plan for a county as large and diverse as this," said one high-level school administrator. "There may be too many issues, too many interests. The board didn't draft the 1973 plan. The staff did the work under the supervision of (Federal Court) Judge Frank Kaufman. You know, we may be asking a little too much of this board, or for that matter, any board."