With the Montgomery County school board election primary only two months away, the issues emphasized by the 15 candidates for four open seats revolve chiefly around whether the board has been truly representative of most residents and whether it has taken too much of an administrative role in running the schools instead of simply setting policy.
The battle lines have been drawn around a conservative slate of three persons supportive of the board's policies, a board member who said she has grown weary of being labeled as part of the board's conservative majority and an alliance of four moderate-to-liberal candidates backed by a political action committee.
Other candidates believe neither liberals nor conservatives should control the board, and a phalanx of former PTA leaders has joined the fray, determined to regain the influence they believe they have lost in the leadership of the county's 177 schools.
Robert Shoenberg, dean of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland, is one of four candidates endorsed by EDPAC, a political action committee formed last year amid growing disenchantment with the policies of the sitting seven-member board.
"The board tries to solve issues by overregulation instead of setting policies and leaving the operation to the school administrators," he charged.
Both Shoenberg and CIA analyst Marilyn Praisner, who also received an EDPAC endorsement, cited as examples last fall's school closing decisions in which the board overruled recommendations by Superintendent Edward Andrews on Rosemary Hills Elementary, Montgomery Blair High and Eastern Intermediate schools, decisions that were later themselves overturned by the Maryland Board of Education.
"Their staff puts in a lot of work, but the board is not prepared to enter into a meaningful dialogue with them," Praisner said.
"They have not allowed their staff the freedom to develop new ideas," charged Odessa Shannon, director of program planning for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "This school system has been in the vanguard educationally, but these actions stifle all creativity." Shannon also is endorsed by EDPAC.
The fourth candidate endorsed by EDPAC, Montgomery College history professor James Cronin, cited the board's recent decision to eliminate a controversial two-day unit on contraceptive instruction from its eighth grade health education program.
"Citizens, staff reports, teachers and parents supported the contraceptive unit and the board voted against it," Cronin said. "They are telling the professionals in the school system 'we know better.' It has become a board (majority) of five members dictating policy to Montgomery County."
The two incumbents seeking reelection to the board, Carol Wallace and Joseph Barse, take strong exception to those charges, arguing that the board crosses the line from policy making to administration only when the system fails to implement its standards.
Barse, 51, an economist with the Agriculture Department, said the present board acted shortly after the 1978 school board election to reduce class size to improve instruction by setting standards that said classes should not exceed 30 students.
"We had several overcrowded classes of 35 to 40 students. The classes were too big," Barse said. "We found that homework was not being assigned regularly in some classes, then that was a failing in administration. The kids come first. We are going to move into that vacuum, and we are going to act."
Wallace, 46, said that "for many years there was a far cry between what the board adopted as policy and what was implemented in the trenches. That has changed. . . . Maybe we have been a little more specific than people would like, but it is a dilemma. We are not trying to get into regulation, but we have to be specific. Test scores have turned around and are going up. Discipline is much better and this is what people should be looking at."
Elizabeth Witzgall, a Montgomery County business law professor, and Herbert Grossman, an administrative judge with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have joined in a slate with Barse and support the board policies.
Witzgall said the key issues in the school board race are the ways the board uses its budget, in a time of growing fiscal constraints, to give the best education for children. She also argued for a vigorous approach in math and computer literacy instruction.
Grossman is a strong advocate of ability grouping in classrooms, placing students of roughly equivalent achievement in the same classes with plenty of opportunity for advancement. He said there should be stricter course requirements for children in math, sciences and foreign languages.
Another supporter of the current board's policies is Barrie Ciliberti, a former unsuccessful candidate for Montgomery County Council. Attempts to contact Ciliberti for further comment were unsuccessful.
Zoe Lefkowitz, past president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, takes strong issue with ability grouping, arguing that it too often labels children as nonachievers too early in their school careers. "My oldest child didn't learn to read until third grade, . . . now he is getting his doctorate," Lefkowitz said.
Vicki Rafel, a former PTA president, also believes the board should make greater strides in expanding math and science programs. She said the board too often has allowed some schools to have more resources and greater course selection than others.
Physicist Barry Klein and Westinghouse executive Tim O'Shea, who have joined in a two-man slate, and Sharon DiFonzo, a former vice president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, say the board should distance itself from block voting and political alliances and become more independent.
Nancy Dacek, a housewife, agreed to an extent, saying newly elected board members "should be able to work together as a board no matter who is on the board already. I am a little concerned with the 'throw the rascals out' mentality."