A Montgomery County circuit judge has ruled that parents of children at Grosvenor Elementary School in Bethesda have a right to sue the county board of education over the board's decision to close the school.
Judge Stanley Frosh last week rejected school board arguments that the parents lack standing to litigate the Grosvenor closing. He scheduled for next Wednesday a hearing on the parents' request for a preliminary injunction to bar the board from shutting down the school in June.
The decision raises the strong likelihood that all six schools chosen for closure, either this year or next, eventually will become involved in litigation, according to Gary Simpson, lawyer for the Grosvenor parents.
Already, parents of children who attend English Manor Elementary School in Rockville have filed motions to join the Grosvenor case, and Simpson said he expects similar motions from parents on the other four schools scheduled for closure.
In addition to English Manor and Grosvenor, the board voted last December to close Larchmont Elementary School in Kensington, Northlake Elementary in Rockville, North Bethesda Junior High and Randolph Junior High in Rockville.
The board of education has been sued before over the school-closing issue, although never successfully. Most previous suits did not advance even as far as the Grosvenor case.
The Grosvenor and English Manor parents contend they were denied their constitutional rights to due process of law in the decision-making process that led to the order to close the schools.
"Our basic position is that the school board violated its own established policies," said Simpson.
"The policy they outlined was that they would have a cost analysis for the schools to determine which ones to close, they would have a capital-cost analysis and a racial-balance analysis, and they would look at other factors in a comprehensive manner before determining which schools to close."
In fact, argues Simpson, the board of education did not consider any of those criteria when it decided to close Grosvenor.
"On Nov. 5 the board accepted a comprehensive plan for school facilities as the document they would work from, but the comprehensive plan did not follow their own guidelines. It did not contain the necessary information. Therefore it was not comprehensive.
"It is our position that once an administrative body enacts a policy or resolution, it is bound to abide by it as along as the policy or resolution stands."
Montgomery school board president Daryl Shaw disputed Simpson's conclusions that the board had not followed its own guidelines.
"As far as due process is concerned, we feel we gave every school that we recommended for closing a chance to have their say," Shaw said.
The December votes for the closings followed months of controversy and debate over how to proceed and which schools should be shut down.
Since the mid 1970s, the issue of school closings has become increasingly controversial in Montgomery County, where the student population peaked in 1972 at 126,000. Since then, enrollment has declined to 24,000 and the board has shut down 24 schools.
In moving to join the Grosvenor suit, the English Manor parents also contended the school board failed to follow its own policies in the decision-making.
Additionally, they argued, the board acted in violation of the rights of 26 deaf and hearing-impaired children who are in a special program at English Manor. The program was moved to English Manor in September.
"They must have acted in haste or they wouldn't vote to close the school three months after they moved the program there," said Janice Pilon, the mother of three English Manor pupils.
Jane Wurzel, mother of a 10-year-old deaf boy at English Manor, said if the school closes in June, her son will go to his third new school in three years next fall.
"I'm really kind of appalled at the Montgomery County school board," said Wurzel. "What we're finding is that we're an easy mark when it comes to making a closure decision."
Wurzel's son, Michael, is in an educational program at English Manor that combines sign language and lip reading. Most of the time he is taught in a regular classroom with hearing children, but he leaves for periods of special instruction.
"Michael's attitude is that he doesn't want to be special," his mother said.
"All he wants to do is get an education that any other 10-year-old kid would get."
Last year Michael attended Georgian Forest Elementary School, but he moved to English Manor when the new program was started there last fall, Wurzel said.
If the board goes ahead with the plan to close English Manor, all the children now enrolled there would be transferred to Lucey Barnsley, about a mile away. About 90 percent of the neighborhood children who now walk to English Manor school would have to ride buses to Barnsley -- another argument cited by the protesting parents.
Roger Titus, lawyer for the board of education, said he would oppose the English Manor parents' motion to join the Grosvenor case on the grounds that Grosvenor and English Manor are separate schools and should be considered separately. Simpson, the Grosvenor lawyer, said he supports it.