The Maryland Board of Education's landmark reversal recently of actions by the Montgomery County school board is the latest chapter in a three-year-old political drama that is building toward a finale in the school elections next fall.
Political fluctuations on the school board are part of Montgomery County lore, but this year's election will be unusually explosive. The outcry over the future of education in the county, fueled by the state's reversal of the local board's actions involving three schools in the Silver Spring area, has contributed to the growing politicization of the nonpartisan elections.
Adding to the drama was the surprise resignation of board member Elizabeth Spencer to challenge board member Marian L. Greenblatt for the Republican nomination for the 8th District congressional seat.
This fall, voters will choose whether to continue the direction of the current board majority or to swing the pendulum back on issues such as racial integration of and sex education in the county's 160 public schools.
In 1978, Joseph Barse, Carol Wallace and Eleanor Zappone were a slate of outsiders whose victory resulted in a conservative majority.
Now, Barse and Wallace are seeking to retain their seats in a race that will decide the fate of the four-year-old majority. Board President Zappone has given up her seat.
"Our policies are definitely on the line," said Barse, 51, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who has formed a slate with Herbert Grossman, an unsuccessful board aspirant in 1978, and political newcomer Elizabeth Witzgall, a business law professor at Montgomery College. Another candidate, Barrie Ciliberti, 45, a history professor at Bowie State College who ran unsuccessfully for the County Council in 1978, also supports the board majority.
Four of the board's seven seats are up for grabs, with 15 candidates running.
Those challenging the board majority are counting on what they believe to be widespread public dissatisfaction over the board's handling of school closings, as well as an impression that the county has lost its reputation for justice and tolerance because of the board's policies on racial integration.
Those defending the board's majority accuse opponents of using race as a political issue. They argue that the board has reduced class size, instituted final exams for senior high students and improved programs for handicapped and gifted students. Wallace said, "If everything is overturned, then I have served four years for nothing."
Although the five members of the board majority dispute suggestions that their tenures have exacerbated racial tensions, others say they have.
"There have been differences before over the educational role of the board and the three Rs, but it didn't go into tearing up communities," says Democratic Del. Lucille Maurer, who was elected to the board as part of a liberal slate that ousted a conservative majority in 1964. "It was never with the kind of corrosiveness you find today . . . . Now it penetrates into the fabric of the community."
Although past races have reflected the "high-road" and polite tactics that are the norm in the county, this year's race will have all the trappings of a hard-fought political campaign.
In addition to the five candidates who support the board majority, 10 others oppose its policies, accusing the majority of everything from hurting minorities through school closings to ignoring the recommendations of its own staff and Superintendent Edward Andrews.
Already there has been a suggestion of converting the school board seats into partisan offices. (Some observers say the proposal, offered by Democratic Party Chairman Stanton Gildenhorn last year, was a reaction to suspicions in the Democratic ranks that the Republican Party was quietly providing board member Greenblatt with voter information and precinct workers for her campaigns. Greenblatt, a Democrat until last July, has denied receiving any help from the Republican Party in her school campaigns).
More recently, some liberal state legislators report that their campaign workers have chosen to work for school board candidates instead of in legislative races, a sign of the growing political interest in schools.
The best organized campaign belongs to EDPAC, a political action committee formed last year to oust the majority faction. EDPAC has raised $10,000, conducted a professional public opinion survey, targeted voters who are disgruntled with the present majority through newspapers and board correspondence and screened and endorsed four candidates who may run as a slate.
"In terms of theory, we are running against Marian Greenblatt's people and her process," says EDPAC spokesman Ron Wohl. "She was such a strong vote-getter that she felt she had a mandate to do what she wanted to do. But now the swell has come up against them. Frankly, we are exploiting that opportunity."
The trend toward sophisticated political organization in school elections began with Greenblatt's campaign in 1976.
Although she was the lone conservative that year, when she ran on a platform to retain neighborhood schools, she achieved a complete takeover of the board within two years by backing a slate of candidates, managed by her husband, Marshall (Mickey) Greenblatt, who pledged to fire the superintendent, Charles M. Bernardo. Greenblatt's allies said they disagreed with Bernardo's educational philosophy, and also with his determination to pursue school busing.
In 1980, Greenblatt ran for her second term on a slate with newcomer Suzanne K. Peyser and was the biggest vote-getter in the field.
Greenblatt's tactics also succeeded in reducing old (and generally liberal) lines of influence on the board. The county Parent-Teacher Association, for example, which once served as a steppingstone for candidates, has enjoyed less access and influence since Greenblatt's election. This year there is a movement to reverse that trend. Zoe Lefkowitz, former president of the county PTA, is an independent candidate for the board (she is a member of EDPAC but was not one of the four candidates the group endorsed). Former county PTA executive committee members Vicki Rafel, Tom O'Shea, and Nancy Dacek also are running, as is Sharon DiFonzo, 39, active in the county council of PTAs. One EDPAC candidate, Marilyn Praisner, who was defeated two years ago, also was on the PTA committee in the past.
As the race heats up, several factors have emerged. One of the most significant is that Wallace and Barse, who ran on slates together in the primary and general elections in 1978, have decided to run separate campaigns, at least through the Sept. 14 primary, which will reduce the field to eight candidates.
Wallace, 46, who has served as board president, said she may not support Barse's slate mates and added that she is trying to distance herself from Greenblatt.
One advantage to EDPAC and other challengers, some observers say, will be Greenblatt's absence from the campaign. If Greenblatt loses the 8th District congressional race, she will be able to retain her seat on the board, which expires in 1984.
The EDPAC-endorsed slate is made up of Robert E. Shoenberg, dean of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland; Odessa Shannon, director of program planning for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; James E. Cronin, a Montgomery College history professor, and Praisner, an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Cronin, 41, a member of the county Human Relations Commission, accused the board of supplanting the authority of its own staff, superintendent, and teachers. He cited the board's recent decision to drop a two-day unit on contraception for eighth graders. "It has been three or four people who are doing what they want, regardless," he said of the board.
He also charged that the school closings and the dissolution of the school's minority relations monitoring committee in favor of a new group "gives a feeling in the community that their agenda does not include the needs of minorities."
Candidate Grossman, an administrative judge on the licensing board of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says such claims are groundless. "No one is running in this race who is antiblack."
Shannon, who is the only black candidate, criticized the board's decisions last summer to allow an increase in the number of minority students in schools.
Barry Klein, a 40-year-old physicist with the Naval Research Laboratory who ran for the school board in 1978, and O'Shea, the 47-year-old director of international trade support for Westinghouse, have joined in another slate, arguing that the board too often has become an ideological battleground.
O'Shea said that EDPAC should be criticized for wanting to replace the conservative block with "another block of identical candidates who are clones of the liberal board members."
Rafel, a 43-year-old bookkeeper who was a former cochairwoman of the Coalition for Excellence and Equality in Education in Montgomery County, said that although the school system budget has risen from $271 million to $353 million in the last four years, "they have failed to deliver their promised strengthening of the instructional budget."
Dacek, a 48-year-old homemaker, argues that it is time to repair wounds in the school community. She said she fears the issue of school closings will unfairly dominate the campaign.
The intensity of this year's school elections reflects deep philosophical controversies that have arisen as a result of the county's changing demographic and socioeconomic profile.
No longer is the county as dominated by middle-class federal employes whose main concerns in the 1960s were whether to enlarge school curricula to include better science and math programs. The schools' shrinking finances have complicated the issue of how to meet increasingly diverse needs of students.
Greenblatt and her allies have focused their campaigns on traditional themes and they have stressed their view that school board decisions only affect education. They say that pragmatism, rather than ideology, can straighten out the system's complexities and provide traditional education to the system's 91,000 students.
EDPAC has a different tack. It comprises officials of a variety of county agencies and organizations, reflecting a belief that school board decisions affect housing patterns, tax bases, business and development, demography and culture, as well as academic achievement.
No greater momentum could have been added to EDPAC's campaign against the current board majority than last week's ruling to keep the Rosemary Hills Elementary School open and to reverse the local board's new boundaries for Montgomery Blair High and Eastern Intermediate schools.
Critics of the board will have the offensive and the board majority will now be forced to defend decisions that the state has labeled "arbitrary and unreasonable."