The Montgomery County school board race this year is one of the most bitterly personal contests in the short history of the elected board.
The two incumbents running for reelection, Marian L. Greenblatt and Blair G. Ewing, are leading their respective slates in a campaign battle of accusation and name-calling. Parents who follow school board activities closely fear the tone of this race may poison the atmosphere on the board for the next four years.
Greenblatt and her running mate, Suzanne K. Peyser, are brandishing mimeographed sheets and slick brochures that compare Greenblatt's record with Ewing's in 11 board votes over the past two years.
It shows Greenblatt voted to reduce the amount of class-cutting students were allowed, to require final exams in all academic courses, to increase funds for textbooks, to assign homework regularly, to eliminate 50 administrative positions, to replace former superintendent Charles M. Bernardo, to establish the first vocational-technical center, to make voluntary a black-studies course for staff and to limit class sizes.
In each case, according to Greenblatt's paper, Ewing voted against these proposals.
Ewing and his fellow slate members, Sandra M. King-Shaw and Marilyn Praisner, responded with their own double-columned sheet. Their team, it says, supports smaller English classes in high schools, more discipline, better supervision, smaller expense accounts for board members, better early childhood education, reconsideration of the seven-period school day and fair policies on the closing of schools.
Greenblatt, it says, opposed smaller English classes, more all-day kindergartens, more high school security monitors and the seven-period day.
Greenblatt and Peyser then called a press conference to accuse Ewing of changing his positions in this campaign.
"But they're taking votes out of the context of the discussion and alternatives, and representing them as facts," said one school board observer. That objection is also the way the candidates themselves reply to the implications for their views that could be taken from a simple listing of a "for" or "against" vote.
Michael F. Goodman, the only candidate not running on a slate, describes his positions on education as conservative, and takes many of the same stands as Greenblatt and Peyser. He has been out of the line of fire of the two slates, however.
Greenblatt set the tone for the campaign. She said her opponents were clouding the issues, that they said they supported discipline and back-to-basics education when in fact they -- meaning Ewing -- in the past two years had voted against proposals that had helped to improve students' test scores.
To make clear the difference between herself and Ewing, she compared their voting records in her campaign literature.
Ewing, King-Shaw and Praisner took up the gauntlet.
"What were you doing during the two years when you were a member of a 6-to-1 majority on the board?" Ewing was asked at a candidates' forum.
"I acted as an individual," he replied. "I am against the kind of bossism that is going on now. Suzanne Peyser was against countywide exams, but now she has changed her position and come around to Marian L. Greenblatt's view. She has fallen into line."
The forums have been marked by a succession of personal attacks. Marilyn Praisner prefaced a reply to a forum question with: "This half-time, part-time schoolteacher sitting next to me," referring to Peyser.
School board elections have changed tremendously in the years since board members were first elected in 1952. Harrison King, 68, of Laytonsville, was elected to that board.
He spent about $35 on literature, made public appearances with his fellow candidates, and was voted into office on the basis of his work in the PTA and his efforts to get a new school building for Laytonsville.
"Word got around that I worked real hard to get the new building and people in other communities thought I could do something for them," said King, a farmer.
"The job is supposed to seek the person rather than the person just deciding they want to run," he said.
"I spent 10 years working in and around the school system and I knew how it worked," said William L. Freienmuth of Laytonsville, a school board member from 1966 to 1970. "These days some people get the idea that something's wrong with the schools and they set out to fix it [by running for the board]."
In the first elections, candidates ran from districts and were elected at large. There were more people like King and Freienmuth from the up-country area on the school board then. Freienmuth was among the last set of candidates to run from districts, in 1966. Today the candidates run at large and all current board members, except Elizabeth Spencer, who is from Gaithersburg, are from Chevy Chase or Silver Spring.
Goodman is from Wheaton; King-Shaw is from Rockville; Peyser is from Bethesda and Praisner is from Silver Spring.
To reach some of the county's 345,000 voters, candidates must virtually construct a political organization from scratch. Not many people hear the candidates speak in person before the election, although there are forums and coffees almost nightly; beginnng in September and continuing until Nov. 4.
Greenblatt has found bulk mailing an effective, although expensive, way to get her message out. But, particularly in this presidential election year, many people who will vote for the school board candidates know nothing about them or their stands. Name recognition is the best a candidate can hope for.
Greenblatt's husband Mickey managed the successful campaigns of Eleanor D. Zappone, Carol F. Wallace and Joseph R. Barse in 1978. He said the campaigns before 1976 were sleepy, shoestring operations.
"A different type of campaign is being waged today," he said. "Today you are expected to work hard. There's much more shoe-leather politics and more intensity at forums. It was a sleepy kind of thing before '76. There was a little clique that ran Montgomery County school board politics. There weren't hard-running races or sharp distinctions between candidates."
Many would disagree with him, but there can be no question that running for the school board requires, as Mickey Greenblatt put it, the four "c's": "candidate, cause, cash and craziness."
Some people say they are afraid running for the school board has become so expensive and time-consuming, and requires so much political savvy and physical stamina that many who are truly concerned about education will be discouraged from seeking a board seat.
And after the tremendous effort to organize workers for the campaign, "your support mechanism vanishes the day after election," said Harriet Bernstein, who was on the board from 1972 until 1976.
Early this month she conducted a workshop at the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, entitled "Coping with Stress." One of the ways suggested for board members to cope with stress was talking with friends.
The immediate response of the board members was, "What friends?"