A few persons in the audience booed softly when Montgomery County school board member Marian Greenblatt stepped to the microphone. One person hissed. At times during the three-hour candidates' forum at Walter Johnson High School last week, her remarks prompted loud and openly derisive laughter from the crowd of approximately 130.
At least in this area of Bethesda, where one junior high school has already been closed, and North Bethesda Junior High, the second Walter Johnson feeder, is marked for the same fate, former board president Greenblatt apparently has become a lightening rod for public discontent with board policies.
When the other eight candidates running for seats on the board declared their intentions to place a moratorium on school closing until a countywide plan for dealing with declining enrollments has been developed, they drew boisterous applause.
Two years ago, Greenblatt and her husband and campaign manager, Mickey, engineered the successful campaigns of Joseph Barse, Eleanor Zappone and Carol Wallace to form a new majority, one that opponent minority board member Blair Ewing has called "the most shameful, regressive force in the county today."
Two members of the 1978 slate, Barse and Wallace, now have abandoned Greenblatt to support the team of Michael Goodman and Edward H. Gerstenfield. Greenblatt, meanwhile, has paired herself with Suzanne Peyser, a teacher at Einstein High School.
The issues shaping this campaign, as described by the candidates in telephone interviews, pit two pairs of conservatives against each other, as well as against Ewing and the four others vying for three seats that will become available in December.
Goodman and Gerstenfield, who say they are content with the direction of board actions over the past two years, ask voters in the May 13 primary to choose a new majority, one based on managerial skills rather than on different policies.
"I finally felt that the way things were going, it was time to either do something yourself or shut up," said Goodman, a former chairman of Montgomery County Citizens for Education and a longtime friend of Carol Wallace.
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions," said Gerstenfield, a Bethesda attorney with a practice in Rockville. "What we need is good management and competence. I don't think she (Greenblatt) is able . . . Some of the things she has supported I have approved of. But other actions taken by the board that she has supported seem to indicate a lack of sensitivity to the community and a lack of management ability.
"The school closings are probably the single largest example of this," Gerstenfield said. "They were arbitrary.Some schools were closed for reasons that would apply even better to other schools. And when your standards are arbitrary and don't make any sense, then nobody (in the community) can make an effective contribution."
The cry for improvement of "basic skills" echoes again around the county this year. While the candidates agree standards need shoring up, however, there is sharp division over the standardized final exams approved by the board.
Goodman, Gerstenfield, Greenblatt and Peyser support the exams.
"We feel there's a need for uniform countrywide finals," said Greenblatt. "There's going to be constant pressure to improve the educational program of the county in the face of diminishing resources.Unless we have public confidence that the schools are delivering the kind of program the parents can be proud of, we're going to have constant money problems."
The other candidates disagree.
"I don't think standardized tests test students' ability to analyze problems," said board member and candidate Blair Ewing. "There is an urgent need to emphasize those kinds of skills which will serve children well into the 21st century. And those are skills which have to do with analysis and being able to synthesize knowledge from a wide variety of fields. People who are simply able to regurgitate facts and read them back are not good to me."
"Standardized testing is a waste of money," said candidate David Roffe, a Gaithersburg resident who manages a warehouse for the Camalier and Buckley retail chain and, at 28, is the youngest candidate. "What we need is a better system of evaluating whether the students have the analytical techniques they're going to need in life."
"The problem we have," said Jorge Luis Ribas, a former president of the Indian Spring Citizens Association who teaches human anatomy at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, "is we put excessive emphasis on testing to the detriment of the fundamentals, such as reading and writing. We are creating a multiple choice mind."
Marylyn Praisner, a part-time CIA analyst from Silver Spring and a member of the Laurel-Beltsville Hospital Board, and Sandra King-Shaw, a former president of the County Council of Parent Teacher Associations and the only black candidate, both argue that the board has not adequately considered the cost of the tests and what can be expected in return from them.
"What are we going to get from those tests that we don't already have?" asks King-Shaw, who ran for the board unsuccessfully two years ago. "Such an exam is of no value unless it is validated, and that is expensive. That money can be spent more usefully on other things, such as textbooks."
"Before they institute new policies, such as final exams," said Praisner, "we need to evaluate the implications of them. I'd like to see the board have a cost evaluation of some of these things."
Many of the candidates would prefer to increase emphasis on curricula in the elementary grades. Eliminating the need for "costly remedial programs" has become another popular refrain.
"What we do now is provide a marginal education at the elementary grades and then develop all kinds of programs to correct problems in the later grades," said Ribas.
Ewing is one of several candidates who urge reducing class size in elementary grades.
Both Ewing and Ribas have called for an all-day kindergarten.
Gerstenfield was applauded when he was introduced at the Walter Johnson forum as the author of the so-called bong bill, legislation awaiting the governor's signature that would ban the sale of drug paraphernalia throughout the state. While all of the candidates see drug abuse in the schools as a major issue, Gerstenfield and Goodman have been particularly vocal about increasing discipline and taking a tougher, law-and-order approach. v
"The drug abuse problem is appalling," said Gerstenfield. "If the law is being broken in the schools and school officials are unable to restrain them, then the community at large has a responsibility, too. We just can't have schools that are battlegrounds. I would prefer not to have a situation where arrests are made on school grounds. But I wouldn't shrink from it."
"The schools' primary responsibility," said Goodman, "is to let the students know they have a steady policy. The board has to make it very clear that they want a consistent policy throughout the schools and should make the information of drug incidences public."
"Simply focusing on drug education is not enough," said Ewing. "We have to take some kind of specific actions. There are deep concerns in the community and among teachers that there are serious discipline problems related to drugs and alcohol. What I believe we need in the county, as a result of the rise in drugs use, is a comprehensive county-wide approach to drugs, which would involve the police to find the dealers and prosecutors to prosecute them."
Ribas has made drug education programs in the lower grades a major part of his platform.
Several of the candidates disagree with the tough stances on discipline proposed by the board and supportted by Gernstenfield and Goodman, such as lowering grades for poor attendance.
"They don't want any final exams and they don't want to punish students for absences," said Goodman. "I don't know what else you're supposed to evaluate the kid on."
"I don't subscribe to the theory that the board should say how much homework should be assigned," said King-Shaw. Praisner is another candidate who sees changing programs, rather than specific disciplinary steps, as the means to improve student behavior.
"Everyone agrees that we have some problems with lack of respect," she said. "But it's more than a question of enforcing the law. You have to ask, 'Are the kids motivated.?'"
One thing with which the candidates all agree is that if the board does not stop the bickering and infighting that has been one of its hallmarks for the last two years, it risks jeopardizing its relations with the County Council and state government.
Six candidates will proceed from the May 13 primary to the general elections on Nov. 4. George Aument, a social studies teacher at Parkland Junior High whose name will nevertheless appear on the primary ballot, has withdrawn from the race.