Twenty-three former Montgomery County school board members, concerned about partisanship in school board elections, have urged Republican and Democratic party leaders to refrain from making the traditionally nonpartisan campaigns their next political battleground.
A letter, signed by an unprecedented coalition of former school board members, was sent to party leaders less than a week before the Democratic Central Committee is scheduled to hold public hearings on whether it should lift restrictions barring precinct officials from participating in school board campaigns.
There are no similar Republican prohibitions.
Last month the county's 18-member Democratic Central Committee decided to reconsider its hands-off policy after charging that Republicans already had politicized board elections, enabling conservatives to dominate the board.
"Our views on education are diverse," stated the former board members. "(But) we believe now that the public interest and public education are best served by nonpartisan elections."
County Democratic Chairman Stan Gildenhorn and Republican Central Committee Chairman Paul Clark both said they would be willing to discuss the coalition's suggestion to establish uniform guidelines limiting party involvement.
Gildenhorn said it was highly unlikely, however, that the Democratic Central Committee would remain neutral in the forthcoming election unless the Republican Central Committee agreed to restrict precinct officials from campaigning and to discipline those who do so.
"Year after year we have witnessed the direct involvement of Republican precinct officials in school board elections," Gildenhorn stated, reiterating previous charges that Republican precinct officials have been seen on election day campaign ing for school board candidates and marking sample ballots with school board choices.
"My personal view is that as long as they are going to be involved in school board contests and have no restrictions put on them, then Democrats should have the same rights," said Gildenhorn.
Chairman Clark responded that only a "handful" of Republican officials had been involved in school board elections and charged that the Democrat's allegations had "nothing to do with election procedures," but everything to do with "preventing conservatives from getting elected to the school board." Clark added, however, that he "agreed absolutely" with the nonpartisan thrust of the letter and would be in contact with Gildenhorn to begin discussions.
The letter conspicuously avoided any mention of the current seven-member school board, which was attacked late last year by County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist and community groups for its handling of school closings. Among the strongest accusations were ones charging the board with attempting to segregate county schools.
"The current board majority has politicized the school board enough as it is and that should be a warning not to continue it," said Roscoe Nix, one of the most vocal opponents of the board's school closing decisions and chairman of the Montgomery NAACP chapter. Nix, who signed the letter, served as a board member from 1974 to 1978.
"I can understand why the Democrats don't want to stand idly by while the Republicans continue . . . but in the long run the public is going to be outraged that education has become a political football," Nix continued.
Del. Lucille Maurer (D-Silver Spring), a former school board member, said, "We are not trying to comment on the present board controversy."
Instead, said Maurer, "We are trying to focus on the process the community uses and we think it's a good system. We don't think current problems should be solved by tinkering with the system."
In addition, the letter stated that reversing the county's policy of nonpartisan elections would bar federal employes from running for school board seats. Federal employes are prohibited from taking part in partisan elections. In a partisan election, two current school board members, Blair Ewing and Joseph Barse, would be ineligible to run.
Although nearly every former school board member still living in the county signed the letter, a few did not.
William Bullis, a Republican who was elected to the board in 1952, said he would not sign the letter because both parties had campaigned and would continue to campaign sub rosa, or under the table.
"They've been doing it all along, so why not come out in the open?" Bullis said.
The first public hearing on the Democratic Central Committee's reconsideration of its school board election policies will be held Monday at 8 p.m. at Blair High School in Silver Spring. Another hearing will be held Jan. 20 at 8 p.m. in the County Council chambers in Rockville.