Mothers and fathers, many with samll children, packed the room to the rafters last week as the Prince George's County school board held the first of four public hearings on its controversial plan to close 31 elementary schools over the next three years.
Each member of the audience wore over the heart a badge of school loyalty -- some made with paper and crayon, others smartly printed. There were orange As emblazoned with 'Save Our School' for Accokeek Elementary, strawberry ovals for Harmony Hall, bald-eagle mascot emblems for Camp Springs and yellow, 3-by-5 cards professionally lettered "Crestview Elementary." Banners from each school spilled from the balcony railing.
In all, about 1,500 concerned and angry parents turned out at the four hearings to demand that their neighborhood schools be spared the fiscal ax currently hacking at national, state and county budgets. But their pleas are not expected to outweight the need to eliminate the 31,000 empty seats expected in county elementary schools by 1985.
Even with the savings from combining underenrolled schools under 31 fewer roofs, the school board faces the tighest budget squeeze ever. County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan has said he will hold spending to a 3 percent increase, despite the impact of double-digit inflation and of any pay raise negotiated for county teachers. In fact, Hogan wants more schools to be closed, and at a faster rate.
Taking a break after two and a half hours of testimony in the first hearing, and facing three more evenings of the same, assistant superintendant Eliott Robertson remarked wryly, "A lot of people say bad things about our schools, but if you want to see what one is worth, just try and and close one. Just try."
While the massive closing plan has not drawn the same volume of outcry as in 1976 and 1979, when a total of 17 schools were closed, the list of speakers at two of the three hearings originally scheduled last week topped 115, and forced the board to schedule a fourth hearing to accomodate the overflow.
Berwyn Heights Elementary PTA president Diana McCusker, recovering from back surgery, traveled by ambulancefrom her home to the hearing at Eleanor Roosevelt High School and was wheeled to the lectern on a stretcher to plead for the threatened school.
Nevertheless, many of the parents came to the hearings believing their efforts would be futile.
"Are you really here to gather information?" asked Darald lofgren, one of four council members from the small town of Berwyn Heights. "Or have you already accepted the staff recommendation? Are you here just because public hearings are required?" he asked the impassive board.
The plan, submitted to the board by the school staff last December, identifies 31 elementary schools throughout the county to be shut over the next three years, with 15 to be closed next September. Combined with the closing of 13 junior high schools, already approved at a school board meeting two weeks ago, Superintendent Edward J. Feeney expexts the actions to save $35 million in operating costs over the next five years, $2.5 million of that in the next year. The closings will eliminate 16,000 to 18,000 of the 20,000 seats now empty.
The school system's department of pupil accounting attempted to apply the following criteria to each elementary school in the county, in deciding which should be closed:
avilable space in nearby schools,
enrollment of fewer than 300 students
the potential for alternative uses of the building
tthe capacity of the building.
The schools held 163,000 students during the peak-enrollment school year of 1971-72, when the county was building new classrooms at the rate of one per day. This year total enrollment is down to 122,000, with the largest past of the decline in elementary schools.
Seeking to save their schools, many parents told the board their community's growth rate had been underestimated in the plan, that their school was the focus of community life and that trasporting their children could not be as economical as having them walk to school, as some of them now do.
But school officials responsible for the plan stuck by their figures, which one school board member says have always been "right on the button."
"We heard all that (the arguments against closing) in 1976 and 1979," said Assistant Superintendent Edward M. Felegy, "but the (school) population is still going down," he added, noting that the average annual saving per closed school will be $150,000.
Accokeek Elementary, on Livingston Road in the largely rural southwest corner of the county, is 28 years old and has an official capacity of 315 students.
School planners project that its enrollment will decline from 203 this year to 189 by 1985, but the parents, with the help of data prepared by Marcy Canavan of Accokeek, maintained that by then, enrollment will be more than 223 students and growing.
"There is only one reason our resultsdiffer so drastically from those of the school system: ours are based on the hard facts, not suppositions derived from unfounded assumptions," said Canavan. She was referring to the school system's reliance on past enrollment data and housing surveys conducted by the Prince George's County planning department. h
They also attacked the plan's assumption that larger school enrollements are better. School officials insist that small enrollments restrict the scope and flexibility of instruction. They cite the large number of schools with only one class per grade and schools that share music, gym and other special teachers with as many as four other schools. When there is only one class in a grade, officials said, there is no way to separate students according to their special needs. In the case of a shared teacher, they added, much of the teacher's day is spent traveling and loyalties to a school are hard to develop.
But the Accokeek parents, like those from the small town of Colmar Manor, who will lose their school in 1983 underthe plan, say there is nothing wrong with a school small enough for the principal to know all the students by name -- one toward which community groups feel close enough to donate time and money. They said the fact that the children at tiney Accokeek have scored better than average on standardized reading tests is "no fluke."
"We are proud of our school, and we use our school," said Charles Weller of Accokeek. "We like our small school."
While most parents could only make emotional appeals that their schools be kept open, one modern, large, well-enrolled school, Samuel Morse in South Laurel, is slated for closing because it offers the school system a chance to increase the racial mixture of three neighboring schools. Morse is 52 percent black while Deerfield Run, James H. Harrison and Montpelier are 17.7, 17.7, and 11.7 percent black respectively.
Assistant Superintendant Felegy admitted that while the framers of the plan attempted to avoid any resegregation of schools, racial balance was not one of the stated school-closing criteria.
The Samuel Morse parents, black and white, bitterly denounced the planned closing as a deception.
"It does not matter if our kids attend a school that is predominantly black or white," said Etta Hill, "but our children will not continue to be used as black knights is a racial chess game played by (the department of) pupil accounting."
Parents from several schools, including Crestview Elementary in Clinton and Forrestville Elementary, said at the hearings that busing for racial integration purposes had artificially loered enrollments, thus putting their schools on the "hit list" for closing. School officials said later, however, that in some cases the parents had confused "busing" with transportation.
County Council Member Sue V. Mills (D-Oxen Hill) drew a standing ovation from the Crestview parents when she blasted the plan to close the school, inthe heart of a residential community, and transfer the children to Brandywine Elementary, four miles to the south.
"I was astounded when I learned that Crestview was on the chopping block.I said, 'There goes the southern part of the county again,'" said Mills, during the hearing for the southern part of the county. "Ask anybody who owns a car. We will not save money," she declared, adding, "I'm going to fight for (the parents of Crestview) until death do us part."
School board chariman Jo Ann Bell, who had sat through hundreds of irate speeches largely in silence, could only reply, "Send money, Sue, just send money."