Using 1980 census figures, the Prince George's Senate delegation this week approved a plan to realign the boundaries of the nine seats on the county school board.
Black officials said the plan appeared likely to retain the existing racial balances which, in the past, have yielded only one black member.
The senators' plan now is scheduled for consideration by Prince George's delegates. As it stands, according to some legislators, the delegation is closely divided on whether to adopt a plan during this session or postpone action until next year.
In approving the plan, the senators rejected a bid by black legislators to draw lines designed to virtually assure the election of three blacks to the school board.
The senators' plan was first considered by school board members on March 28 at an informal meeting called to discuss a shift of voting precincts that would equalize population in each school board district at roughly 72,00 people.
The plan discussed by school board members was modified slightly by the senate delegation.
Because of population shifts and what school board member Bonnie Johns called "a lot of gerrymandering years ago," the nine districts now differ widely in population.
For example, board member Norman Saunders' 9th district, which covers the southern one third of the county, has 86,000 people. New Carrolton's 4th district, represented by Susan Bieniasz, has only 63,000 people.
School board chairman Jo Ann Bell's current district, which includes the Suitland-District Heights area, is 55 percent black while board member Angelo Castelli's Oxon Hill district has a slim 5,000 edge in black residents.
The senators' plan "would mean that basically we'd have a school board of unequal representation-as it is now," said Del. Sylvania Woods, who co-chaired a special committee of Prince George's delegates and senators who considered the matter before the senators' vote. Woods is one of two black Prince George's delegates.
Sen. Tommie Broadwater Jr. (D-Hyattsville), the only black member of the senate delegation, fashioned a plan last week that would add some contiguous, predominantly black precincts to the Bell and Castelli areas, to ensure a sizeable black majority in both. It would make Bell's district 65 percent black and Castelli's district 57 percent black. It also would have added enough blacks to Bieniasz's district to make it half black, half white, in anticipation of future demographic shifts of blacks into the area. It is now one-third black.
The stakes in the school board redistricting, mandated by state law to take place this year, might well reach beyond the question of who will be elected to vote on pencils and books in Prince George's. It might also involve the redistricting of county council seats.
As far as the politicians are concerned, the plan for the school board may determine the county council plan, and vice versa, which would create a race as to who will do what first.
Passage of Proposition K last fall will shrink the council from 11 to 9 members who will run only in individual districts-like the schoold board.
In a two-tiered struggle, black leaders say they want to assure representation on the school board and county council commensurate with the new 1980 census figures that show the county has risen from 13 to 37 pecent black. Three of the 11 county council seats are now held by blacks.
Broadwater and allies on the county council said they would prefer to see the council, considered more liberal than the school board, draw its lines before the legislators act on the school board lines. Their concern, it was said, was that the new school board lines might be considered a precedent for council redistricting.
Legislators, led by Sen Thomas V. "Mike" Miller (D-Clinton), said they would rather see the school decision made first in Annapolis during the current session.
Del. Tim Maloney (D-Beltsville) said he felt blacks were entitled to more representation on the school board, but said his main concern was to have a nine-district plan drawn by the legislators first.
Although the council is free to draw its own lines in October, Maloney said that a legislators' plan would set a precedent that will prevent the council from cutting districts solely to protect its incumbent members.
"I am convinced that if the county council draws the plan (first), it's going to be a terrible plan for the next ten years. The only thing I am wedded to is doing it this year and have to deal with a spaghetti bowl of lines on the map."
At a midnight meeting in Annapolis two weeks ago, Broadwater and Sen. Thomas O'Reilly (D-Riverdale) reportedly traded charges of "racist" in a shouting match over black legislators' aims to assure at least three black seats.
"The school board should not be decided on the basis of race. That's little more than what the county was doing 30 years ago," said O'Reilly.
O'Reilly said this is, foremost, the beginning of a political struggle, with racial implications.
"It's the opening salvo because it's the first lines we're attempting to draw. It may be a portent of things to come," he said.