Elizabeth B. Witzgall is running for the Montgomery County school board because she says she wants to promote traditional educational values and believes the up-county area badly needs more representation.
Witzgall, 44, is part of a three-member slate of candidates that backs most of the current board's controversial decisions and hopes to preserve the board's conservative majority.
She said she welcomed incumbent Joseph R. Barse's suggestion that she join the slate in the effort to keep liberals from recapturing the majority they held before 1978. Herbert Grossman is the third candidate on the slate.
"Our slate is for traditional education. That means that we are for the time-tested forms of education," said Witzgall, of Gaithersburg. In addition, she said it is important for up-county residents to have a representative on the board. "I felt very strongly that, this being a county school system, all schools should be equal. That should be the case. That was not the case. All the goodies were down-county," she said.
Voting in the Sept. 14 primary will narrow the field of 15 candidates to eight, four of whom will be elected Nov. 2. Barse and Carol Wallace are seeking reelection. The other two seats up for election are being vacated by Eleanor Zappone and Richard Claypoole, who was appointed to fill the term of Elizabeth Spencer when she resigned to seek the Republican nomination for the 8th Congressional District seat.
As part of her traditional education philosophy, Witzgall opposes open classrooms. She likens them to the old one-room schoolhouse with "300 children in one room. It was total chaos, and children did not learn." The current school board has reduced the number of open classroom schools. "That's an example of the failure of the liberal point of view," Witzgall said.
Instead, she favors grouping children by their ability within grades and classrooms. Ability grouping traditionally has been opposed by liberals who fear some children will be stereotyped and get "stuck" in low groups.
Witzgall said ability grouping also would improve programs for the gifted and talented students. She said the programs now pull children out of class for special but random experiences that have little relationship to their studies.
As a way to restore traditional respect for teachers and to help maintain order in classes, she said, the board and administration should back teachers who discipline children. She favored starting to train teachers in their rights and the procedures for handling discipline infractions. Teachers who take the course should be guaranteed legal counsel if sued by parents over disciplinary actions, she said.
Witzgall supported the current school board's recent actions requiring homework, final exams in high school courses and automatic failure in the course when junior and senior high students cut class more than five times.
A former Justice Department tax lawyer, she cited state law to answer liberal criticism that such actions by a policy-making body reach too far into the classroom, restricting teacher autonomy.
"The board is legally required to make regulations for the conduct of the school system, and I think that is very logical. What good is it to make policy if you don't intend for it to be carried out?" she said. "I think it's important that an elected official follow through . . . and see that policy is carried out. Where the board feels that the electorate has spoken, the board should make regulations."
Witzgall said that although she attended private schools, she and her husband Christoph, a National Bureau of Standards mathematician, are "philosophically committed to public education." Their children, John, 16, Lisbon, 13, and George, 11, attend Gaithersburg public schools.
Witzgall is a graduate of Goucher College in Towson. She spent her junior year in Switzerland and said the experience, coupled with her major in international relations, gave her an appreciation for the importance of languages. She said schools' instruction in languages needs to be strengthened.
After Goucher, she entered Columbia University Law School in New York, where she made the law review staff during her first year and achieved several academic honors. When she applied for Columbia's prestigious international law studies program in her second year, she said, she was turned down because, she was told, the school wanted "leaders, not women."
"That was a very trying experience to live through," she said. "In the early '60s, we did not have legislation, which now exists, which makes that sort of thing illegal."
Witzgall has served as a volunteer in education from pre-school to adult education programs for senior citizens. She was president of a cooperative play school in Seattle and taught German to young foreign children when she lived in Germany for several years. She has been a Cub Scout den mother and Girl Scout troop leader. She has taught tax law to adults who helped the elderly prepare their taxes.
She volunteered at Gaithersburg Elementary School when her eldest son started classes, and for eight years she served as chairman of the Gaithersburg Home School Organization, which serves in place of a PTA. Later, she served on the executive board of a junior high home school organization and on the school board's up-county planning committee. She represented the county YWCA on the board's committee on family life and human development, which reviews sex education materials.
Her community service includes heading a committee that produced a history of Gaithersburg. She researched and wrote several chapters in the book, published in 1978. She teaches business law part time at Montgomery County College.
Witzgall said she hopes to convince taxpayers who don't have children in school that quality education will attract and keep "high-technology, low-polluting industries" that will add to the county's tax base.