At a recent, special meeting, the seven-member Montgomery County school board was grappling with interim plans for three schools that are the center of a dispute between the county and state boards of education.
Board member Joseph R. Barse interjected into the debate two complicated solutions to the problem of what to do with the schools while the board wages its legal battle against the state. The board agreed to consider the proposals this week. Later, Barse pushed a third proposal, but it was rejected.
Veteran school board observers say Barse's actions that night were typical: He frequently tries to take over the reins of leadership when the board has been unable to resolve an important issue.
"Joe is the one who comes in at the 12th hour with the ideas, offering substitute proposals when the board is deadlocked," said a high-ranking school system official. "Sometimes he gets the field goal, but sometimes the kick gets blocked."
At age 52, Barse freqently marshals debating skills he sharpened as a Northwestern University student to defend the four-year record of the board's "new majority" of conservative members. Now, he is seeking to extend that record as he runs for reelection.
"I want to continue to build on the progress we have made and continue to move in the same directions," said Barse, an economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
When pointing to accomplishments of the past four years, Barse stridently defends the record of his colleagues in the majority on the board. Under the current majority's leadership,discipline has been tighted with the addition of hall monitors to keep drugs out, attendance requirements have been made stricter, scores on standardized test have improved throughout the system and major construction projects have been completed, he said.
In addition, Barse pointed to his work to limit class sizes, his help in the board's effort to reallocate funds from administration to the classroom and his fight for more textbooks to overcome what he called "serious deficiencies."
But detractors say Barse has offered little to improve the schools and has actually been a source of disruption.
"His proposals distress the maximum number of people, from the school closings to the budgets," said board member Blair Ewing, a frequent opponent of Barse on key issues. "I don't know whether he does that because he is the stalking horse of [school board member Marian] Greenblatt or because he doesn't have better sense."
Roscoe Nix, president of the county NAACP, said Barse should be more of a leader instead of "supinely and submissively" following Greenblatt's lead on issues. Nix also accused Barse of policy decisions that are "inimical to the best interests of blacks."
Board vice president Suzanne Peyser, a Barse supporter, had a different assessment: "I think he is outstanding. He is very capable and articulate and cares very deeply about the kind of education that children are provided in this county."
Barse ran with school board member Carol Wallace in the primary and general school board races in 1978. This year he is running with federal administrative judge Herbert Grossman and Montgomery College business law professor Elizabeth Witzgall. He did not select a fourth member for his slate to avoid the appearance of running against Wallace.
Barse said his slate has several goals for the next four years. One is to identify students who have problems mastering basic skills and to eliminate "social promotions. . . . We want to make sure that students don't get through many years without mastering basic skills," he said.
Barse, son of a railroad freight company attorney, was born in Chicago. He earned an undergraduate degree at Northwestern, followed by graduate degrees in history and economics at Harvard and Columbia universities, respectively. He joined the federal Bureau of the Budget in 1962. After four years, he switched to the Agriculture Department because of "a desire to work in research and international trade."
He moved in 1970 from the District's Glover Park area to Montgomery County because of the reputation of the county's public schools, he said. Five years later, while vice president of the Somerset Elementary PTA, he became so "repulsed" by then Superintendent Charles Bernardo's liberal, experimental concepts that he decided to run for the school board in 1976.
Barse ran with Greenblatt that year and finished fifth of six in a race for three open seats on the board. Greenblatt won election that year. Two years later, Barse ran with current school board president Eleanor Zappone and Wallace, finishing first in the election that propelled the board's new conservative majority into power.
Since then, the board has been criticized for not allowing its superintendent to run the schools and for going beyond its policymaking role.
More recently, the board has been criticized for taking the state board of education to court to fight its reversal of the county board's decision to close Rosemary Hills Elementary and alter the boundaries of Eastern Intermediate and Montgomery Blair high schools.
In response to these charges, Barse said Superintendent Edward Andrews has "complete discretion and a free rein" to interpret board policy. But in some situations, such as class size where the board sets specific limits, the board was entering a vacuum that school administrators had left, he said.
On taking the state board to court, Barse said, "in effect the state board has accused us of doing something illegal and that is not right. It is simply a matter of justice and fair play to let the court decide." He said school board attorneys estimated such an appeal would cost no more than $25,000 to $30,000.