Due to an editing error, it was incorrectly stated yesterday that the nine-member Maryland State Board of Education attended a hearing Saturday on Montgomery County school closings. No members of the panel were present at the session, which was conducted by an examiner who will hear evidence and then make recommendations to the board.
The Maryland State Board of Education, an oftentimes obscure panel that is empowered to overturn local actions but seldom does, took center stage today in the bitter battle of the Montgomery County school closings as parents from the Silver Spring-Takoma Park area appealed their case to the higher authority.
The nine-member state board gathered in a stuffy hearing room of an aging office building to listen to a debate about race and community and the future of changing suburban school systems with declining enrollments. A $240-a-day state hearing examiner from Washington presided. It is his task to hear the evidence and recommend a course of action to the board.
Although it has reviewed school closings before, the state panel has never overturned one. Nor has it ever had the volume of such appeals as in the massive Montgomery County cases file. Usually, it hears appeals from local personnel actions and deals with statewide curriculum issues.
The members of the state board of education, appointed to staggered five-year terms by the governor, come from all corners of the state and include two blacks, from Baltimore City and St. Mary's County, and an Asian from Anne Arundel County. As a group, they are strict constructionists of their legal mandate; words like "liberal" or "conservative" seem inadequate to describe their actions on the board, if not their own private pasts.
The current president, Joanne T. Goldsmith of District Heights, now serving a second term, was a dissenting member of the Prince George's school board who fought to dismantle that county's segregated school system more than a decade ago.
The other member from the Washington suburbs, Verna Fletcher of Silver Spring, was a member of the Montgomery County school board's former liberal majority and its president in 1975 and 1976. She chose not to run for reelection because, she said the other day, "I could see change in the climate, both in the board and the community."
Fletcher, a professional educator, said that because of her state role, "I keep myself absolutely aloof from the factions in the county. In fact, I don't even go to things I'd like to. Most people feel I lean over so far backwards to be objective. Some people in Montgomery County have said, 'Verna, don't lean over too far.' People don't always understand what your role is."
When Fletcher was on the Montgomery board, community views were solicited sooner in the closure process and racial imbalances weighed more heavily, according to school system planners. "We were very, very cautious about racial discrimination at all points," Fletcher said. There was little backlash, and the few appeals made to the state board were unsuccessful.
On the other hand, the actions of Montgomery's current board, in voting to close 27 schools, have attracted far-flung interest. The national office of the NAACP in New York and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington have assisted protesting parents. The American Civil Liberties Union has also sided with them. Even the Baltimore Urban League, under directions from its national headquarters, is keeping a watchful eye on the unfolding struggle.
The protestors contend that the closings, combined with attendance boundary changes, will be borne disproportionately by the integrated schools and neighborhoods of the close-in suburbs. One result, they say, will be the busing of minority children beyond the beltway, while white students remain in their open neighborhood schools.
The opponents hope to prevail at the state level, but many are looking beyond to what they see as lengthy litigation in federal court. "It could set a precedent involving what is a school system's responsibility where there is a history of segregation as in Montgomery County and all of Maryland, faced with changing demographic patterns," said William Robinson, of the Lawyers Committee.
The board's current majority came to power after a 1978 election campaign in which "certain signals were given to the community" by the successful candidates, attorney Peter J. Nickles asserted today in his opening statement on behalf of the appellants. "When all the pieces of the puzzle are put together, we now have one-way busing where there was two-way busing, integrated schools being closed, minority students affected, majority students protected."
The burden before the state board is on the local losers to convince the panel that the decisions under appeal were "arbitrary, unreasonable and illegal." The case was made in a series of 16 affidavits filed even before today's hearing, at which witnesses began presenting themselves for cross-examination by board lawyers.
The hearings are expected to last four days. The cost of the legal contest promises to be high. The county is paying private attorneys between $65 and $105 an hour to defend its school board's actions, money which will come from the taxpayers.
The protestors are being represented by lawyers from the prestigious Washington firm of Covington & Burling, who have donated their high-priced time and talent to the cause. To pay nonlegal costs, citizens have gone door to door and plan to hold a large fund-raiser and a rally in Rockville. The City of Takoma Park has given $5,000, the citizens of that municipality another $6,000, and $3,000 more has come from other sources.
Members of the school board majority say their closure decisions were adopted as part of a long-range facilities plan in which enrollment is a primary consideration. They say race was eliminated from the list of major criteria drawn up by the school superintendent for initial consideration. Racial impact of closings appeared instead on a list of 10 secondary concerns.
E. Stephen Derby, the Montgomery County school system's attorney specializing in desegregation, said at the hearing, "a sound educational system for all students was the ultimate objective" of board actions. "To focus 100 percent on racial impact is an injustice to the primary mission--the educational program. However, the evidence will show there was not a disproportionate impact on minorities and no intent by the board to have that impact."
Opponents of the school closings contend race was very much on the minds of the majority as they made decisions that critics claim were intended to isolate minorities in communities inside the beltway and east of Rock Creek. Board actions, they say, raise serious constitutional questions of racial discrimination and denial of due process.
"The overriding concern of the majority of the board has been to protect whites from integration," charged lead-off witness Blair Ewing, one of the Montgomery board members who opposed the closures. Ewing, the only county board member here today, added that "in achieving this aim, the majority has flouted its own policies, abandoned sound educational policy and polarized students and parents across racial lines throughout the county."
"We have tried to assure that no area of the county become an economic backwater," wrote Norman Christeller, the county planning board chairman, in prepared testimony. "Isolation of minority students in certain areas can lead to increased segregation in housing, which will only cause further segregation in schools."
Dr. Diana Pearce, a social scientist who prepared a report on the closings for the ACLU, said "school board actions signal to majority parents that if they seek out or remain in housing in predominantly majority areas, the school board will protect and promote their racial isolation."
Until recent years, when declining enrollments created new dilemmas for a society geared to growth, school closings were few and far between on the state board's agenda. In the last three years, however, a dozen such appeals came before the board. Most were from Montgomery County.
In one such case, Montgomery County board member Joseph Barse, who usually votes with the board majority, complained to the state board that politics had played a role in the closing of Grosvenor Elementary School in Bethesda. The state board, with Goldsmith and Mary Elizabeth Ellis from the Eastern Shore dissenting, upheld the closing. While noting that "not all of us agree with the decision," the state panel said "this is not the kind of case in which the state board should substitute its judgment for that of the local board."
In so acting, the state board was following its own landmark ruling in a 1976 case, also from Montgomery County. Local actions could be overturned, that ruling held, only if "arbitrary, unreasonable, or illegal."
Last year, the state board also rejected an appeal of Baltimore County parents who charged their local board with racism, and raised the specter of white flight as the result of the closing of their elementary school.
The state board said it found no evidence of racial motives, but rather that there were other compelling reasons to close the old school with a shrinking enrollment. "It may be that the parents' fears of 'white flight' are realized to some extent--we hope not--and it may be the school system should have placed more emphasis on community relations," the panel said. "But there is no indication it has acted illegally or from constitutionally impermissible motives."
Decisions such as that one inspire confidence among the Montgomery board majority that its actions will be upheld. Opponents, however, were buoyed by the state board's decision, objected to by the county board, that consolidated five Montgomery appeals involving six schools that the Maryland panel said raised not only similar, but substantial, constitutional issues.