After 31 school closings in eight years, and with more to come, Montgomery County parents are trying -- not for the first time -- to reach a consensus on how to choose which schools to close.
What make this effort different, they say, is its scope and timing. More people are involved, especially non-parents who for the first time in generations outnumber parents in the county. A school board task force is working on a 15-year facilities master plan that takes citizen input into account.
The Montgomery Council of Parent-Teacher Associations got 69 concerned citizens to spend a good part of their summer discussing what criteria they felt were important in deciding whether to close or consolidate schools.
Should it be the amount of money saved? The condition of the builiding? The distance to the nearest school? Enrollment? What about interference with education programs, or social considerations?
They put together a 52-page report on these criteria and sent it, with a ranking sheet, to about 800 people -- school prinicipals, PTA presidents, members of civic and educational organizations and others who represent thousands of people throughout the county. The survey results will go to the school board at the end of October.
School closings have been a fact of life in Montgomery County and elsewhere in the nation since the early 1970s, when the country's school systems first felt the effects of the declining birth rates of the 1960s.
According to Census Bureau reports, from 1954 until 1964 there were more than 4 million births each year in the United States, but the number began dropping in 1965, as couples had smaller families and more women entered the work force. In 1979 there were 3.3 millon babies born. m
When children from the post-World War II baby boom entered school, classrooms were overcrowded.Between 1965 and 1970, Montgomery County built five to six schools each year.
Enrollment in the county has dropped from a peak of 126,311 in September 1972 to about 98,000 students this year.
Now only one school is under construction -- Martin Luther King Junionr High School in Germantown -- and 31 have closed, starting with Silver Spring Intermediate School in 1973. A moratorium on further decisions is in effect until the facilities master plans is completed next spring.
"Throughout the history of the school closing process, there has been a tremendous amount of citizen protest about the way it was done," said Zoe Lefkowitz, president of the Montgomery Council of PTAs.
"There were area planning groups, local planning groups, cluster evaluations, citizen groups, expensive reports -- much information was generated, but many citizens felt the information wasn't being used.
"There was a feeling that the criteria were being applied unequally, where one citeria was used for one school and another used for another.
"We are hoping to get it settled once and for all what it is that citizens think is the most important."
The first group to rank the criteria was the 69 persons who worked on the report, and they put cost factors at the top of the list.
The number of students enrolled and the capacity of the school was judged second in importance. The question of whether boundaries could be changed so that children could either walk safely or be bused a short distance to antoerh school was ranked third, followed by condition of the buildings. Next were the kinds of educational programs the school offered, and social considerations such as the impact closing a school would have on the community.
Ranking the criteria is somewhat more complicated than this, however, because these are overall categories and each includes a dozen or so subdivisions, also to be ranked. For example, while many people do not place social considerations highly, they name racial balance, one of the subheadings, an important criterion.
"It's meant to be a basket of criteria with primary ones and secondary ones, not a strict list," said Lefkowitz.
"I think they've done a very professional job," said school board member Elizabeth Spencer. "For the first time in several generations there are more non-parents than parents in Montgomery County, and they are trying to include these people."
A survey last spring by the school system's Department of Information found that 62 percent of the adults in the county did not have any children in the school system.
The current PTA study is "intended to complement the 15-year master plan and I think it does," said Spencer. "The school staff has a particular point of view. We're limited in our view; it's impossible to hear every perspective."
And there are as many perspectives as there are schools.
"We realize we have to close schools," said Mary Marcoot, of Bethesda, who worked on the report. "It's the method we're objecting to. The way it is now, groups of cheerleaders show up with badges and put on a dog-and-pony show (when a school is being considered for closing). Then the board listens. I don't think that's the way to make decisions."
But many, including people who worked on the report, still stand on both sides of the fence. Keith Prouty of Bethesda added his efforts to the report on criteria, and is also chairman of a group formed early this year, the Walter Johnson Area Community Committee.
Prouty said the group was organized "as a result of proposals, suggestions and undercurrents" indicating that officials were considering closing Walter Johnson High School.
"We're realistic enough to know that being cheerleaders is not enough," he said. "We need politicala muscle."
The committee of about 35 citizens has endorsed the slate of school board candidates Blair G. Ewing, Sandra King-Shaw and Marilyn Praisner. Before the primary last spring they distributed leaflets door-to-door and within a week had 143 names of people interested in working for the committee and the slate.
They plan to hold a reception Oct. 12 in honor of Walter Johnson High's 25th anniversary and for the three candidates.
Prouty said the committee knows the school board is not currently considering any schools for closing or consolidation, but that four elementary schools and two junior highs in the Walter Johnson area have been closed.
"In my view that whole (closing) process (which resulted in the closing of North Bethesda Junionr High) is a shambles, and people have a right to be angry," said Ewing, incumbent candidate for the school board. "They were denied due process. The North Bethesda community feels that it paid its share, that it made its contribution to the solution, and that attention should be focused elsewhere. I think they are justified."
"We have an eye on the long-range process and want to make sure that in the future the board and Walter Johnson consider the same things important," Prouty said.
Despite his realism and belief in the efficacy of politics, Prouty worked on the criteria evaluation report and said, "I think it's an improvement over previous versions of the same kind of material."