The Takoma Park City Council has voted to spend $5,000 out of the city treasury to fight the Montgomery County school board's decision to close Takoma Park Junior High. The mayor has called members of the school board cowards. Citizens have cursed the board in public and vowed to take their case to the state board of education and to U.S. court.
Such a level of rage may not seem extraordinary at a time when many parents and citizens throughout the county are angry over the board's selection of 28 schools to be closed in the next five years.
But what is extraordinary about Takoma Park's fight is that it is a battle not only to preserve a school but also to protect a style of life and a set of values that are trademarks of a community molded in the social activism of the 1960s -- trademarks that are rare in a county of expanding wealth and newly conservative politics.
"We are really beginning to wonder if anybody out there cares about the American dream anymore, where people of all kinds get along in friendship," says Caroline Bassing, whose daughter is in the seventh grade at Takoma Park Junior High.
"We have the feeling of being some sort of stepchild because we are different and unique," says Faith Stern, a former teacher and specialist in English literature who has lived in Takoma Park since 1964. "The community is naturally integrated and likes it. But because we are not viewed as a model, we exist in shameful reproach of what they the school board are."
That this self-contained community of 16,000 people is unique in the county is no mystery. It is a potpourri of blacks, whites, Asians, Hipsanics, and many young professionals and single parents who settled there to take advantage of the free-flowing lifestyle and moderately priced older homes.
Once known in more affluent sectors as "Tacky Park" because of the age of buildings in the area, Takoma Park now boasts the fastest-growing real estate values in the county. It has two historic districts, which may be expanded to include another neighborhood. Its citizens elect their own city government, and pay more than the normal county taxes for a city police department, a sanitation crew, and a library. And the city gave the county plots of land suitable for two elementary school sites.
What worries Takoma Park citizens now is a sense that new conservative politicians in the county have little regard for their community's cultural renaissance. Some residents feel the school board's decision to close Takoma Park Junior High, which has been a common meeting ground for a diverse population, will threaten real estate values and discourage young families from moving in.
There is a fear among many Takoma Park citizens that the community's trademarks -- the different colors of skin, the variety of languages spoken, even the preference for blue jeans over pin stripes -- are in jeopardy.
For this reason, as well as the commitment to the junior high itself, citizens rallied for the school with a vengeance unmatched by other communities.
For several months citizens compiled data to argue their case. The community was integrated voluntarily, they told the school board. The junior high was a neighborhood school (one of the board's favorite concepts), with more than 500 children within walking distance. The building was used for after-school programs that attracted children from the numerous single-parent households in Takoma Park. No institution, the parents argued, had a finer record of welcoming children newly arrived from abroad.
Like other communities, Takoma Park organized a variety of spokesman to testify before the board, including a civil rights attorney, an economist, and one of the school's premier teachers. They received strong backing from state delegate Stewart Bainum and state senator Victor L. Crawford, as well as from the city council and mayor.
The community even anticipated the board's argument that the school should close because it needed a renovation, and offered up a memo to the board the night before the vote listing carpenters, masons, painters, electricians, and plumbers who would contribute their time to make repairs on the school building.
The board was unmoved.
Eastern Junior High, a newer facility, needed Takoma Park's students to increase its own enrollment. Takoma Park's roof was so leaky it was a hazard to children inside, board president Carol F. Wallace said in justifying her vote to close the school.
Expressing deep regrets, which Takoma Park residents later labeled "window-dressing," the board voted to shut the school.
Takoma residents turned out en masse this week to protest the vote and urge the board -- in vain -- to change its mind. Led by Mayor Sam Abbott, they carried signs through the meeting hall and jeered the conservative faction on the board.
The confrontation, both funny and angry, seemed out of character in the normally polite world of Montgomery County politics.
Perhaps that was because the citizens believe their battle involves more than just a school building. "What we are fighting for," Stern declared, "is the continued existence of all the things we have spoken for."