Inviting citizens to participate in governmental decisions has always posed certain risks for public officials in Montgomery County where second-guessing bureaucrats is a way of life. No issue illustrates the unique strain of civic activism that characterizes this affluent, well-educated suburb as well as the death of the local school.
Over the last two months, Montgomery's public school planners, with the help of a computer, have been drawing up a master plan to guide the school system as it undertakes the largest and most disruptive program of school closings in the county's history: 31 schools in the next five years.
For the first time since the school board began shutting schools in 1973, the board has allowed the public to submit alternatives to a preliminary plan drawn up by Superintendent Edward Andrews.
Seventy-one plans came in. It took two days to copy and bind more than 1,200 pages of alternative proposals submitted by PTA's, school and civic groups. The four volumes are a foot tall. They form a body of opinions and expertise that attests like nothing else to the passions that schools arouse and to the civic prowess that county residents can bring to local issues.
"My husband says why don't you just close the damn schools," sighs Dr. Lois Martin, an associate superintendent who spent last weekend reading the school system's answer to War and Peace. "But in Montgomery we have a great deal of public participation. We'll probably find a proposal in this that's a better way of looking at a situation."
School planners will be poring over the proposals, and in some cases, rechecking their own data, before issuing the superintendent's final plan Aug. 27. Throughout the fall, public hearings will be held before the school board makes its difficult decisions in November.
Meanwhile, the indefatigable residents of the area around Northwood High School in Silver Spring, which the superintendent has proposed for closing, are, like other groups, hoping their plan changes some minds about the school.
The plan, which usges Northwood be kept open and Einstein High School in Kensington be closed instead, was based on the work of dozens of people including two engineers and an architect who inspected the roofs, plumbing, electrical systems at Northwood and two other high schools. It was written by author and journalist Les Whitten whose son, Daniel, is a junior at Northwood.
Whitten, who took time out from translating Baudelaire and work on a novel, spent seven days bringing to Northwood's plan the sort of tone of brisk moral outrage he once brought to columns when he was associated with Jack Anderson. o
Alluding to Thomas Mann's Death In Venice as a metaphor for the manner in which the school administrators treated schools in the Silver Spring area, he went on to assert that, "this painstakingly factual document is the Northwood community's united bowl of outrage.
"We tried to do a professional job," Whitten said yesterday. "If we didn't I knew we'd be sandbagged. It was more difficult to investigate the school board than Watergate. And the reason is that they're not doing it for money. They're doing it for some bizarre bureatcratic reason."
The PTA of Lake Normandy Elementary School in Rockville chose the tactics of lawyerly intimidation in a position paper that included footnotes and a detailed citing of regulations -- another habit popular in Montgomery: "The casual and arbitrary manner in which the Board disregards its own rulemaking procedures is demonstrated by its unlawful attempt to modify MCPS Regulation 265-1 on school boundaries. Section II B 1(d) of the March 11, 1981 policy statement. . ."
Sam W. Cushman of the Olney PTA noted his PhD in signing the 55-page, four-appendices report by an Olney Task Force. The report "undertook an in-depth examination of the methodology and data" presented in the superintendent's preliminary plan, including a review of census data, birth rates and real estate sales.
The nine-member task force, formed to keep Olney from being closed in 1982, divided into four committees; a Liaison Committee, a Clerical Committee, a Research Committee, and a Demographics Committee.
The Bells Mill PTA bound their report in a blue-cover and included maps and blank pages for reviewers to make notes. Many of the alternatives were typset, offering no-nonsense arguments that begin, "Our study of the preliminary comprehensive master plan has revealed several serious flaws. . ." The superintendent's office received letters updating the positions of several groups after committee meetings. People came in for breakdowns of school enrollment patterns street-by-street.
The result, according to school spokesman Kenneth Muir: "We probably have more expertise than we've ever had before." And the moral, Muir says: "You don't slip anything past anybody."