It is no surprise that there were tense and awkward moments last week when four new Montgomery County school board members were sworn in.
The evening, culminating months of sparring between the outgoing conservative majority and the incoming liberal rivals, was rich with political symbolism. It also gave some early glimpses of the roles the seven members will play on the newly formed board.
Despite promises by all involved that the evening would be free of old antagonisms, there was evidence of uneasiness as soon as the ceremony began.
Outgoing conservative Joseph Barse, who with Carol F. Wallace lost his bid for reelection, did not show up. Outgoing board president Eleanor D. Zappone considered staying away but was persuaded to attend.
The two conservatives remaining on the board, Marian Greenblatt and Suzanne Peyser, awkwardly tried to hold their own during an evening that ended up being, in large part, a celebration of their fall from power.
The four newcomers -- Odessa Shannon, Marilyn Praisner, James Cronin and Robert Shoenberg -- obviously delighted in their new positions and the chance to claim official victory for their philosophy and style, which they say will contrast starkly with that of the old board majority. The audience, filled with their supporters (most of whom are longtime antagonists of the Greenblatt faction on the board) relished the opportunity to rub it in.
A few scenes are worth recounting:
John Diggs, a member of the old Minority Relations Monitoring Committee -- which the old conservative board fired, citing its "confrontational" attitude -- was allowed to make a presentation honoring two former board members, despite objections from Peyser (more on that later). Since in recent years there has been no love lost between the minority community and the ousted Greenblatt faction, the symbolism of Diggs' appearance on the stage was not lost on the cheering audience.
Diggs commended former student board member Jon Lipson and former member Elizabeth Spencer, neither of whom was present. Spencer had been an outspoken critic of Greenblatt et al., and then resigned from the board to run for the 8th District congressional seat against Greenblatt in the Republican primary in September. Already a hero of the liberal group, Spencer had become even more of one by defeating her longtime school board rival in the primary.
By allowing Diggs' presentation -- it was the new board's first real vote -- the new members succeeded in using the occasion to make a pointed statement about the old majority: namely that it was really out and that the progressive liberals were back in.
Greenblatt and Peyser were understandably uncomfortable with these goings-on. When Cronin made the motion to allow Diggs to speak, Peyser asked if there were any objections. Greenblatt began to raise her hand. Then, after a cautionary glance from Zappone, she drew it down. There were a few (unkind) giggles from the crowd, which delighted in Greenblatt's uncertain position on a board she had controlled almost single-handedly for four years.
With Greenblatt silent, Peyser tried to make the board minority's case. She began by saying that the ceremony was designed to honor only incoming and outgoing board members, not former members -- although special presentations have been allowed at other swearing-in ceremonies. She said the question of a special presentation had been discussed a day earlier and discarded. She made her points simply and logically, with no trace of animosity.
But then, almost suddenly, she said the idea of the presentation was "rude" and that it showed that the new board members were "selective" in their compassion and sensitivity.
These remarks gave the audience an opportunity to hiss, whistle, and chant, "Vote! Vote! Vote!"
A vote was taken. The new board members, along with liberal incumbent Blair Ewing, voted for the special presentation. Peyser opposed it. Greenblatt, as is her new custom, abstained.
Again the crowd cheered. The victory celebration was complete.
If the swearing-in ceremony is any indication of things to come, board watchers might start looking for Peyser to take on Greenblatt's old role of aggressor. Since her abortive bid for Congress, Greenblatt has receded into the background. Her tactic since the election has been to abstain on, rather than to vote against, some key issues supported by the new board. She clearly does not want to uncork any more latent tensions.
Peyser, who spent most of her first 18 months on the board in silence, has often been mistaken for a muted Greenblatt puppet. But she is no shrinking violet. Peyser has become increasingly outspoken, even vehement, in recent months about some issues. Her discourse about the special presentation at last week's ceremony was a clear example. She appears willing to continue to play that role on the board.