Malinda G. Miles of Mount Rainier Spent more money and had more educational credentials, but Catherine M. Burch, a housewife from Langley Park, was the top vote getter in last May's primary for the school board seat from District 3.
If Burch can make her house-wife's time and patient determination count for more than Miles' meticulous organization and endorsements in the Nov. 4 election then she may represent the Langley Park, Takoma Park, Mount Rainier and Brentwood area this fall.
The winner will fill the seat held by Chester Whiting who was defeated in last May's four-way race. Whiting was attacked by Burch, Miles and William T. Flahive of Adelphi who charged that the 80-year-old incumbent was out of touch with his constituents.
Burch and Miles offer voters in District 3 a choice between candidates with widely different backgrounds, lifestyles and personal goals. Although they both have three children in the Prince George's school the resemblance ends there.
Miles is a master's degree candidate at the Howard University School of Education and a full-time personnel specialist with the National Education Association. She worked her way up from a supply clerk to chief professional recruiter for the NEA in eight years.
She follows a clandar blocked in like a checkerboard and carries around a huge brown leather box, the kind that lawyers use for files, filled with papers, a Tupperware container of soup and two bulging looseleaf binders, one yellow and one black.
"No matter where you see me you're gonna see that case," she said in an interview at her office in downtown Washington. "This is what I learned in the primary and this is for the genral election," she said pointing to the yellow and black binders, respectively.
What's in them?
"How to do campaign reports, writeups, resumes . . . basically how to run for elective office. I had to put everything in one place so I could double check it," she said.
She is part of a newly emerging black leadership in Prince George's County that includes acquaintances Bonnie Johns, school board member from District 6; Mary Touchstone, candidate in. Distirct 9, and Josie Bass, president of the Prince George's NAACP.
Miles was raised by her mother in Screven, Ga., about 77 miles north of Savannah. She received her education in a segregated school system that lacked decent equipment but had teachers who cared.
"They had a desire for us to do better because they knew there was (better)," she said of her teachers in a town where the only jobs for black women were in the fields or the kitchen.
She, too, worked in the tobacco and cotton fields but in her early teens vowed to become a lawyers because of her community's experiences with "southern justice" -- she recalled the young men sent away in the night because they may have looked at a white woman.
"They only justice was to get the kid out of town. I had decided that no one was gonna run me anywhere," she said.
"She married soon after receiving a history degree from St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C., in 1967. The following year she came to Washington, where her husband was attending graduate school, and soon moved to Prince George's County. Divorced in 1978, she has long been the sole support for her four children and her mother who lives with her.
Despite her family responsibilities, she's been active in community politics. She organized the Mount Rainier Citizens for a Stable Community in 1977 to fight multifamily conversions in her town. She chaired the group, wrote and presented their case before the County Council and won. Last year she was appointed to the Community Development Advisory Committee that passes on the use of federal community development funds.
What does she feel is the number one issue in the school board race?
"The quality of education in the school rooms," she said. "Over the years the school budget has increased, but has the quality increased in the same ratio?"
Busing, Miles says, has cost the county a lot of money, clouded the educational issues and polarized the community. However, she says she favors it where necessary.
With the schools under constant budget pressure, Miles says she would like to ask elected county officials the question: "What is (your) commitment to the quality of education?"
She feels that much of what is wrong with the schools can be solved by parents taking an active interest in their children's education, even if it means taking time from their jobs, as she has done many times with her children.
"I mean, why do I work? For my own needs, I wouldn't have to work every day. I work for my kids," she said.
Catherine Burch has not been employed since she was married in 1961, but she has learned that caring for her 18-year-old handicapped daughter, her two other girls and a home can be a full-time job.
Her daughter Susan has a birth defect that confines the bright, flame-haired girl to a wheelchair. Burch's involvement in the problems of the handicapped led her to be active in the PTA and to become interested in the "special education" facilities in the county schools.
"It started more or less with Susan," said Burch's husband Bill. "Not just her -- but all the kids in special education were not getting their share of the funds," he said.
Burch remembers calling a county agency for the handicapped to find out about federal funds to build a ramp for Susan's wheelchair at home. They told her if she found out, she should give them a call..
"Those are the kind 5/8 of things you have to deal with. I could be on the phone all day," she said. Susan piped in, "There's a lot of people who don't wanna hear from you, Mom."
Sitting barefoot in the living room of her modest semi-detached home and surrounded by her family, Burch looks much younger than her 40 years. Despite his jokes about losing the amenities of a full-time wife, her husband, who works for Comsat, is an important partner in her campaign.
In fact, he takes credit for her being in the race after she said:
"I can't believe Chester Whiting isn't retiring."
Bill Burch said, "If you don't believe it, see what you can do about it."
"I felt he was not answering to his constituency," she said. "Being 80 years old and not having any kids -- I couldn't believe it."
Like Miles she had a lot to learn about her first election bid. When she made up her mind to enter the primary, there was the matter of getting 500, signatures by March 3.
"I said, "Well gee, I got 40 houses on this block, a few blocks like this and I'll be done.' To my surprise there were only nine registered voters on the block."
She got the forms and registered them all.
Burch was raised in the Washington of the 1950s. She went to Catholic grade school and the Notre Dame Academy in Northwest Washington.
"I loved it. I made some lifelong friends. It was tough but good," she said. "First of all the nuns demanded respect -- and they got it. Some of the outrageous things that happen today couldn't happen then."
Burch, an only child, and her mother moved to Langley Park before she finished high school. They lived in an appartment on New Hampshire Avenue, just blocks from her present home. She studied physical therapy at the University of Maryland for a year before deciding that it "wasn't my field." She was married in 1961. Susan was born in 1962.
"With most married couples, the wife can have a baby and go back to work," said Bill Burch. "But we felt Cathy's place was at home."
The Burches saw their neighborhood go from white to black in the space of a few years after the 1972 court order that brought busing to Prince George's County and caused "a great deal of white flight."
Their neighbors "did not want their kids bused, period. They wanted them walking to school," said Burch, conceding that racial feelings were also involved. She stayed, and she feels that her daughters have gotten a first-rate education. However, Laura, her youngest, is now walking to an overcrowded elementary school because of the recent change in the busing plan. The school she left, Burch said, is half empty.
"I think (the school board) felt it would look good," she said of the new plan which limits busing for 3,600 kids. "If they had only just waited and studied the problem instead of going at it on a piecemeals basis."
What does she see as the most important issue in the race?
"I think the school system is basically heading in the right direction. What worries me is maintaining it in the face of inflation," she said.
Her opponent has the endorsement of both county teachers unions, which regard Miles as better versed in the issues of professional education. Burch feels that the endorsements are not relevant and Miles' experience may be overrated.
"There were a lot of things that didn't get down to the level of the children," she said of her questioning by the Prince Goerge's County Educators Association. She was asked whether she favored the closed union shop and she said no. "They'r trying to watch out for the teachers," she said.
Burch said she spent less than $100 on the primary and will not spend too much more on the general election, regardless of what Miles spends. Miles said she spent about $2,500 in the primary. Burch said she is relying on personal contacts she has made during the past 25 years in the area.
There have been charges and countercharges about campaign tactics. In August it was reported that some of Miles' primary campaign literature went out under the mailing stamp of United Communities Against Poverty, a federal funded, nonprofit organization. Miles says she has receipts for $482 worth of UNCAP's postage. Edith Jamison, UCAP's director, declined comment on the matter.
Meanwhile, watching from the sidelines, incumbent Chester Whiting said he would endorse Miles.
Laura Burch 11, remembers the surprise of her mother's primary victory and the party that followed -- "roast beef sandwiches, pickles, potato salad and everybody jumping up and down saying, "Oh Mom, you won!"
Asked whether there will be another party, the barefoot Cathy Burch, playing steady tortoise to Miles' canny hare, said, "We plan to -- either it will be all over or it will be just beginning." s