About 70 Prince George's parents, seeking to keep their neighborhood school open, were pitted this week against a handful of parents who want more space in county schools for their handicapped children.
The parents from the threatened Ritchie Elementary school in Forrestville left a public hearing still worried about the future of their neighborhood's school. During the meeting they had heard some 25 speakers, most of whom expressed opposition to the closing.
The school administration proposed closing Ritchie and Tanglewood Elementary schools a month ago as part of a plan to save $7.3 million by rennovating and consolidating existing school facilities to avoid costly new construction. Both schools would be closed to allow planned expansions of special education centers for handicapped students.
The public hearing for the Tanglewood closing last week drew less than 30 parents, most of whom appeared satisfied with their childrens' new school assignements.
The two-hour Ritchie hearing was, at times, tense and emotional as parents pleaded before five impassive school board members. With school resources shrinking, there appeared to be clear competition between the federally mandated needs of handicapped "special" children and those of normal students.
Most of the Ritchie parents were from the Centennial Village housing development.
"Just for this once, let the children of Centennial Village be special to you," implored Katie Jackson. Then she held her third grader Wayne to the mike. "I want a better education. I want a better education," he said.
Several speakers later, Maxwell Mitchell of Capital Heights voiced support for the plan which would expand the overcrowed H. Winship Wheatley Special Education Center into the adjacent Ritchie School and pleaded for his own child.
"I challenge any parents of a normal child to look my son in the eye and say, 'He's not worth it', because that's what you're telling him," Mitchell said, directing his remarks to the parents who said they felt their children were being sacrificed to the county's need for a special education center.
The Ritchie parents, joined by some of their students would leave a superior building and faculty behind. They also complained the children can be damaged by changing schools frequently.
If the closing plan went through, they said, some of the Ritchie children would be attending their fourth school in six years because of the 1978 closing of Randolph Village Elementary school and the 1979 ammendment to the school busing plan.
"We feel that this proposal stinks," said Cynthia Harrod, speaking for parents from the Centennial Village Homeowners Association. "We the community are downright upset that our children will be shipped for the third time. Our children are not cattle. Why should 400 students [from Ritchie] be sacrificed for 150 [special education students]?"
Patricia Schaar, a teacher at Ritchie for 12 years, said that two of the three older schools which would take Ritchie's students do not have gyms, two do not have air-conditioning and one has no media center.
Jon Peterson, whose department of pupil accounting did much of the research for the school closing proposal, said Richie was picked precisely because it had air-conditioning and other modern qualities as well as because of its location.
"Arrowhead [one of the three schools to which Ritchie children would be sent] can match the facility at Ritchie, no question," he said. He said that Oakcrest can match it too, even though it has no air-conditioning and no gym. "There are a lot of schools in the county with no air-conditioning and no gym," he added.
As the parents left the meeting, Brenda Johnson of Landover appeared to reflect the feeling of helplessness in the audience when she said, "After they've heard what all these people have said, if they still close [Ritchie], it was closed before we got here."