The Montgomery County school board yesterday directed School Superintendent Wilmer Cody to begin looking for a site other than the former Larchmont Elementary School to lease to Grace Episcopal Day School, the private school involved in a controversy over the county's school integration plan.
A few hours later, the Montgomery County Council voted to hire an outside lawyer, Hope Eastman, who lives in the Kensington area and has been involved in public school integration efforts, to begin preparing for possible legal actions the council could take to force County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist to cancel the lease with Grace Episcopol officials.
In three separate actions, the council passed the measure hiring Eastman in a 4-to-3 split vote. Then the council unanimously agreed not to vote on any resolutions regarding the lease for two weeks. In the meantime, the four-member council majority of Esther P. Gelman, Michael P. Gudis, William E. Hanna Jr. and President David Scull voted to send a letter to concerned parties saying they hope the issue can be resolved through negotiation, but adding that other remedies, presumably through the courts, are still available.
Asked by a citizen if that meant the church would have to move to another location in order to satisfy the council, Scull replied: "That is the outcome which would solve the problem."
Several Kensington area residents, unhappy that the school building has been unused and deteriotating for three years, expressed anger at the council. "It's a power play on Scull's part!" shouted Peggy Stock, president of the Byeforde-Rock Creek Citizens Association.
The leasing of the vacant public school building to a private school has developed into a many-sided controversy, with Gilchrist, who agreed to the lease, on one side, public school and community leaders on another, and residents who live near the run-down school site on yet a third side. The council majority, which consistently spars with Gilchrist, has sided with the public school and community leaders opposed to the lease.
The Larchmont building is half a mile from North Chevy Chase Elementary, one of three schools involved in the county's major integration plan recently revised in three neighborhoods--two predominantly white and one predominantly black.
Critics argue that any private school in the area would interfere with the integration plan by attracting students who did not want to be bused by the county. Supporters of the move note that the school is well-integrated--a third of its enrollment is minority-- and would not be an attractive alternative to those trying to avoid an integration program.
In an effort to clear up the controversy, Grace Episcopal Church officials told school and county leaders they would be willing to cancel their Larchmont plans if a suitable alternative site could be found.
The school board yesterday, after a lenthy closed-door session, announced in a brief statement that it has told Cody to expedite the search for another site.