The Montgomery County school board election last week was a victory for educational conservatives, who increased their 2-year-old board majority by one seat to gain a 5-2 edge and a mandate to enforce "traditional education" in the county.
Marian L. Greenblatt and Suzanne K. Peyser, campaigning on a conservative slate, and Blair G. Ewing, a liberal, were elected to four-year terms after waging vigorous campaigns that addressed issues of budget enrollment, cirriculum and testing.
Since Ewing and Greenblatt are incumbent board members, Peyser will be the only new face on the board that convenes Dec. 1, replacing board president Daryl W. Shaw, who chose not to run for reelection.
Peyser, an English and history teacher in Montgomery County schools since 1963, favors the policies passed by the board's conservative majority during the last two years. These include allowing only five unexcused absences instead of 10 for senior high students before they lose credit for the course, and a trial run of countywide exams in math and English.
She brings to the board her biases as a teacher, differing with Greenblatt, her campaign partner, on issues such as seven-period days, which she favors over six-period days. She is likely to come under continued criticism for withdrawing her daughters from public school and enrolling them in Bethesda's private Holton-Arms School.
The choices for the new board will be neither easy nor clear. The realities of less money, greater expenses, fewer students and older buildings will restrict creative decision-making. With the limited budget, board members can choose one policy at the expense of another.
All the candidates said that additional schools will have to be closed, that teachers must emphasize reading and writing skills, and that the school system's administrative staff must be trimmed.
Their first big problem will be the school system's operating budget, which totaled $309.1 million for the fiscal year that began July 1. They will have to pay school employes a cost-of-living increase that could add as much as $20 million. With federal and state funding not likely to increase, retaining the current total budget will mean that more money must come from the local government.
The complexities of the budget will be familiar to six of the seven board members, who have worked on the school system's budget at least twice before. Superintendent Edward Andrews will make his recommendations to the board by mid-December and the board will have until mid-February to approve the budget.
The campaign came to a welcome close last week for the candidates, exhausted by weeks of nightly forums, coffees, fund-raisers and meetings, and for some voters who were distressed by the increasingly acrid nature of the campaign. There were also a substantial number of voters -- 40,232 out of 253,288 -- who did not cast a single ballot for school board members.
The school board election is non-partisan, leaving voters with no easy party labels to choose among. The six candidates went to great lengths to make their stands clear to voters, and divided along conservative-liberal lines.
Greenblatt and Peyser called themselves educational conservatives. Ewing called himself a moderate, although in other years and political climates his position was called liberal.
"A liberal label in the present climate prejudges the issue," said one observer, who noted that "liberal" has nasty connotations in a time when there is less money, fewer students and more nonparent than parent adults in the country.Insofar as voters saw the choice in conservative-liberal terms, the results seem to indicate that the conservative viewpoint is favored in the county.
But how do voters come to have educationally conservative and liberal points of view? Joan Armstrong of Brookeville became a supporter of conservative educational policies about six years ago, when her son was at William H. Farquhar Middle School.
He brought home an essay he had written, graded "A."
"It was full of grammatical and spelling errors," she said. "I called the teacher and she said she didn't want to stunt his creativity. But I say he needs to know the basics."
She said she believes that students must attend class to get credit, and that schools should have increased discipline and more control. With the mix of wealthy and lower-middle-class families in the county's northeast, people there see "traditional education" as the necessary equalizer, she said.
Stephen Brush of Silver Spring has been more satisfied with Montgomery County schools than Armstrong. His daughter did well there and went on to the highly selective Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He believes that the attendance and testing rules passed by conservatives on the board of education were insulting to teachers, and tried to tell them how they should go about their jobs. Teachers should have freedom to tailor the curriculum to meet the needs of individual students and the system should allow good students to show their ability he said.
Greenblatt and Peyser saw their victory as a mandate for conservatives on the board, who will have a 5-2 majority next month. Among their campaign promises: keep test scores improving, maintain smaller class sizes, support principals in enforcing discipline, eliminate drugs and alcohol from schools, reduce administrative and nonclassroom costs, and keep the budget focused on teachers and textbooks.