Last week, as the Republicans capitalized on a national sentiment for a change in direction and buried Democrats from Washington to Alabama, Prince George's County voters chose to keep their school board on the same course it has followed since 1976. They returned five of the six seats up for election to their previous holders.
Three of the seats in fact were uncontested and in a fourth race, incumbent Doris Eugene had no trouble collecting 62 percent of the votes cast to defeat Laurel teacher Paul Duncan.
The hot contests were in District 9, in the southern third of the county, and District 3, the Mount Rainer-Langley Park area. These races were decided by margins of less than 10 percent of the vote in each district. In both districts black candidates ran for the board, which has never seated more than one black at a time, in a school system that is now more black than white. Both of the blacks lost.
As a result, Norman (Chuck) Saunders, generally regarded as one of the board's more conservative members, will keep the mandate of the voters of the south. Although the county as a whole went for President Jimmy Carter by a margin of four to three, District 9 backed Ronald Reagan by a five-to-four margin.
In district 3, Catherine Burch of Langley Park best challenger Malinda Miles by 1,533 votes, of which 1,029 were picked up in the tree precincts cloest to Burch's home (out of 15 in the district). Miles' strongest precinct, all bordering the District of Columbia, saw the lowest voter turnout, and even fewer bothered to vote for the school board candidates at the bottom of the ballot.
Based on the trends among registered voters in the unofficial returns, however, even if Miles' precincts had turned out like Burch's, the result would have been the same. Burch will replace Chester Whiting, who lost in the primary after 14 years on the school board.
Burch does not know the other board members -- who have held their seats more than five years on average -- well enough to predict where she will fit into the spectrum of personalities that in past years has caused spirited confrontations at board meetings.
The board members, in turn, do not know Burch, but they seem to feel that pressing fiscal issues will overshadow the arrival of a new member. Moreover, they said, philosophical issues such as busing and what one conservative board member called "wayout" federal programs, which once caused sharp conservative-versus-liberal splits, are behind them now.
"Many of us used to get into doctrinaire, philosophical differences, but in the last few years I haven't seen any of that," said James Golato, now the board's senior member. "When we had these controversies, quite frankly, there was more money around. Now we're not in a position to do all the things we'd like to do. . . . Because of the financial condition we can only do the minimum necessary to give a good basic education."
Board Chairman Jo Ann Bell shared Golato's assessment of the board's situation.
"I think the position of the school board in the last 14 to 16 months has been positive. We have put busing aside and are looking forward to educational quality," she said. "The people who were seated were mostly a part of that process that has already begun."
Both Bell and Galato expressed surprise that at least one of the black candidates had not been elected. But they said race should not necessarily be a factor in the representation of all students, even if half of them are black.
"I think a lot was played up about minority representation," said Bell. "The majority of people, I think, really believe that they want to be represented by someone who is dedicated to purpose and will achieve those goals. I really believe that the color scheme then becomes secondary."
"I was kind of hoping that one of them would get on, simply because I feel that the black community feels underrpresented on the board," said Golato. "The appearance of adequate representation can be just as important as the representation actually being there."
Bonnie Johns, still the board's solitary black, was philosophical about the election results.
"I think if there is a case of woeful underrepresentation it is us, as far as the student population and the county population. But what can you do?" she said.
Board members resist being categorized as liberal or conservative, pointing out that each issue calls forth an individual response from each member. Still, Golato noted that he could usually count on Whiting to join him in a conservative vote. While Burch says she is, "more conservative than liberal," neither she or Golato could say what that will mean on the new board.
"Until I know that this woman might stand for, I'd have to say that my position would now be one vote shy," said Golato.
"I'm going to be my own person," said Burch. "I have definite ideas for some things but I have no idea of how it will all fit in. I'll be the new kid on the block."