When classes resumed three weeks ago, the red brick elementary school tucked away near the Beltway in Silver Spring opened its doors again to a new batch of 7-year-olds, just as it has for the past 25 years.
To many parents, however, the beginning of another year at Brookview Elementary School was something they viewed with mixed emotions. For much of last year, they argued along with schools Superintendent Edward Andrews that Brookview should be closed.
In days when parents are doing everything they can to save their neighborhood schools, the campaign by Brookview parents to close their school down, and the school board's refusal to comply, is a rare departure. But to some parents and teachers the controversy over the school's future symbolizes the increasing role racial politics now plays in the county schools.
It is the kind of issue, both sides say, that could threaten the county's reputation as a stronghold of liberalism. And although the school board is prepared to close Brookview next year, there is a residue of bitterness as the struggle over school closings heats up this fall.
"A lot of people are getting very upset with this school board," says Barbara Cantor, head of a new coalition that will monitor school board activities. "People are upset by the conduct of the board, and by the procedures they are following as an elected body."
With minority students comprising 76 percent of the school population, Brookview parents, black and white, felt their school should be closed because of declining enrollment and racial imbalance. They charge that the board blocked the proposal to prevent Brookview's largely minority population from enrolling in three predominantly white schools north of the beltway -- Cresthaven, Jackson Road and Cannon Road -- where three board members reside.
Members of the board's majority, who voted to "defer" until this fall any action on the superintendent's recommendation, deny the charges. They say they simply needed more time to consider long-range boundary changes and attendance patterns at the high schools before closing any lower-level schools. The allegations of racial bias are, said one board member who asked not to be named, simply "a lot of rhetoric."
"We felt we had to go back to the drawing board before agreeing to close Brookview ," says board member Joseph R. Barse. "We did not feel it was a genuine emergency that required the school to be closed."
Marian L. Greenblatt, a board member who lives in Cresthaven, two miles north of Brookview on the opposite side of the beltway, adds, "There is big concern among Cresthaven parents about the academic levels of the students. There is a great disparity . . . . We think kids should go to schools closest to their homes and that we should provide quality education. And we didn't want an expansion of busing."
Greenblatt, whose aggressive political style has won few friends among liberal whites and minority groups in the county, said the debate over Brookview "is being used for some political reason."
But parents of Brookview students felt they had a strong argument and they were supported by Brookview principal Thomas Lee Poore, a colorful and outspoken administrator who authored the county's school integration policy in 1975. He says "there is no question" that the plan to close Brookview could have worked.
It had been board policy to explore the possibility of closing or changing schools where enrollment dropped below 200 and where minority students made up more than 60 percent of the student population.
At Brookview, enrollment this year is the fourth smallest in the county, with 174 students in grades two through six. Minority enrollment has been edging up at Brookview for five years and last year reached 76 percent.
Adding weight to the Brookview cause was a preliminary draft of the superintendent's 15-year plan, the future bible of school planning in the county, which outlined criteria for closing schools that seemed to be met in the Brookview case.
Finally the parents felt that, faced with the thorny political problem of naming 31 schools for closure during the coming years, the board would welcome their request with open arms.
But at a public hearing last June 22, four board members led by Greenblatt presented a motion to "defer" a decision on Brookview, effectively forcing the school to remain open this year.
Brookview parents were angry that the board had already taken a position on the case prior to hearing the views of citizens, and they were joined by board member Blair G. Ewing, a dissenter who agreed that the hearing was "a mockery."
Ross McMullen, the president of the Brookview PTA and a white who has eight children in the county schools, said it was "the manner in which they did it that got people hopping mad."
"It was the ultimate insult," McMullen said. "There was no purpose to the meeting. They were just letting us jump through a hoop."
The board majority's action, however, reflected the sentiments of many parents in the Cresthaven and Jackson Road areas who held hearings to assess the potential complications of receiving Brookview students in their schools.
The mood at those hearings, according to parents who were present, was hardly warm. In fact, the outcry at Cresthaven prompted the Oakview Citizens Corporation, a group that represents the Brookview area, to write a two-page letter to the board last month that said "our children and our community were thoroughly denounced and roasted as undesirables."
The State Board of Education, although unable to intervene in the proceedings at this stage, has raised questions about the school board's motives in the Brookview case.
School board members say they may be willing to close Brookview at the end of this year, but under a different plan in which students would be distributed to one school north of the beltway, Cresthaven, and three others to the west and south in areas of higher integration.
The new plan, Greenblatt says, is the result of a "top-down" approach to school closings, in which high school attendance patterns are the key to assigning elementary school students to new schools. She said the plan will enable students to travel shorter distances to get to schools.
What the new plan also does is preclude any enrollment changes or increases in the minority population at two schools north of the beltway, Jackson Road and Cannon Road. At Cresthaven, the minority population would increase from 29 to 31 percent, instead of to 41 percent, the level recommended under the superintendent's first plan. Further, the students who would transfer to Cresthaven would be those from the immediate area surrounding Brookview, which is more than half white.
And, as the board majority requested, the new plan would alter the feeding patterns to the senior high schools. Under the first plan, all the Brookview students would have enrolled in Springbrook High School, which is now 22.3 percent minority. But if the new plan is adopted, half of them will end up at Montgomery Blair High school where minority students make up 53.6 percent of the student body.
"From our side it seems like the flimsiest and most transparent evasion," says Brookview PTA president McMullen. "The board turns things around and changes the rules in the middle of the game so that they can win. The way we look at it, they had to have this alternate proposal to change racial balance guidelines."