At its first meeting last September, the Arlington County school board was faced with teachers upset over low pay, students bristling under strict new attendance requirements and parents alarmed about possible school closings.
For Arlington, a county with a reputation for handling disputes discreetly, it looked almost like a brawl. But compared to the rest of the school year, September now seems serene.
"Things did get a little emotional . . . but it's nothing compared to where I come from," said school board member Richard Barton, who grew up in Baton Rouge, La. "People used to throw Coke bottles and bring pistols into the school board meetings."
There was no lethal weapons fired at any of Arlington's board meetings this year, but if words could kill, the school board would have needed its own coroner.
The school closing issue aroused considerable anxiety and anger. Parents from the seven elementary schools initially targeted for study said they could understand that dwindling enrollment in the county necessitated the closing of one or more schools -- as long as it was somebody else's school. t
By December when the school board voted to close just one elementary school, Stonewall Jackson, the board had held four months of hearings and listened to a stunning variety of pleas, arguments and threats.
"Almost anytime you make a decision not everyone is satisfied," said board member Mary Margaret Whipple.
Whipple and Barton were two of the main characters in the hottest feud of the year. It involved the Democratic-backed school board majority and the Republican-backed majority on the County Board, which runs the rest of Arlington and funds the school budget.
In January, when Walter Frankland was sworn in as Chairman of the County Board, he publicly suggested that both Whipple and Barton resign. His vice chairman, Stephen Detweiler, supported Frankland and added the name of Superintendent Larry Cuban to the hit list. All three school officials declined the invitation.
Barton said he thought about quiting after his wife died in November. He decided not to, "because Walter Frankland was yelling so loud for my resignation."
Both Barton and Whipple leave the school board at the end of June, when their four-year terms expire. When their two replacements take office, the school board will have a Republican-appointed majority for the first time in a dozen years.
Although Superintendent Cuban's contract does not expire until July of next year, there has been much speculation that he will leave before the start of the new school year. Cuban admits he has discussed other job offers, but said last week he intends to complete his contract. He cited the need for a "smooth transition" as one reason for remaining despite an atmosphere that could be uncomfortable for a person without support from Walter Frankland.
The transition Cuban refers to involves more than a new majority on the school board. Two of the school system's most senior officials are retiring this year -- Joseph Ringers, assistant superintendent for finance since 1965, and Harold Wilson, associate superintendent for instruction and a school employe for 30 years.
Wilson's retirement is considered the most significant by teachers, administrators and board members. The soft-spoken, former teacher and high school principal is the school system's resident philosopher and historian. Because he rarely offers advice, his advice is often asked for. At school board meetings, all disputes concerning past policy eventually find their way to him.
"Hal Wilson is in many ways the organizational memory for the school system," says Cuban. "His fingerprints are all over the instructional program."
"The man's unique talents are completely immeasurable," says board member Barton, making the cliche sound sincere.
Wilson reacts with characteristic calm to the suggestion that his retirement in a time of political upheaval will rock Arlington's eductional boat.
"The school system has never depended on any one or two people," he says. "Stability over the years has been remarkably uniform."
If anything, says Wilson, the new Republican-backed majority on the school board might be able to get more from the County Board than the current school board.
"Since the majorities coincide (politically), there is more likely initially to be a greater harmony."
Wilson plans to retire to his 400-arcer farm in Shenandoah Valley, where he grows "rocks and trees." Mary Margaret Whipple will be co-campaign manager for John Milliken, Democratic candidate for an Arlington County Board seat. And Richard Barton says he has no plans at the moment other than to continue his full-time job as vice president of a Washington direct-mail marketing company.
"I really am jealous of my time now," said Barton, who said he spent 10 to 40 hours a week on school board matters. Asked if he will attend any board meetings next year as a spectator, Barton thought all of two seconds.
"I intend to. But I bet I won't."