When Marian Greenblatt and Suzanne Peyser get up from their Montgomery County school board seats for the last time tonight, they will leave a legacy of upheaval that grew out of their attempts at educational reform and the unvarnished style they used.
From 1978 to 1982, the board that Greenblatt controlled repudiated previous educational policies, stirring up a community that began to pay more attention to school board politics.
Of particular concern were massive school closings that some said hurt integration. Because of declining enrollment, the board voted to close 28 schools, more than any other Montgomery County school board had done.
During the same years, the board adopted a more disciplined, back-to-basics approach to education that was in the forefront of a national movement. And during Greenblatt's tenure the Montgomery County school board reduced the number of oversized classes, increased the money spent for textbooks from $8 to $15 per student and created systemwide final exams.
Greenblatt, a Brooklyn-born educator, has served on the seven-member board since 1976, was its president in the 1978 school year, and charted the board's direction during the four years that her political allies held the majority.
She said last week, from her office at the U.S. Department of Education, that her agenda during those years had been to bring education "back to the basics," and "raise academic standards." Greenblatt maintains that those goals were sought by the community, despite the fact that her allies were defeated after she lost control of the board in 1982.
"I used the board as a pulpit for turning back the pendulum to a much more solid way of providing education," she said. "I don't think what we have now is so extreme; we'll never go back to the '60s. If anything, I spearheaded a major change in thinking."
Peyser, a former teacher whose two daughters attended private school in Bethesda, rose to power in 1980 as the last member of the conservative majority known as the "Green machine," a four-member slate organized by Greenblatt and her husband, Marshall. The slate carried three of Greenblatt's allies into office in 1978 and retained the majority in the 1980 election.
Throughout her four years on the board, Peyser was known for her unwavering agreement with Greenblatt. That pattern was repeated last week when Peyser discussed her years on the board.
Peyser said her approach had been to apply additional remedies to a school system that she said had become encumbered with too many administrators and was delinquent in its duty to provide such essentials as textbooks.
"Liberals don't believe in textbooks," she said. "And they don't believe in a homework policy."
Greenblatt said last week that she voted to close the 28 schools, alter boundaries and change school busing patterns to save money -- estimated at $6 million -- that could be used to upgrade education in the county.
Community leaders and educators who testified at a month of evening-long public hearings in 1981, when the decisions to close those schools were made, said that some of the proposed closings represented a serious affront to racial integration. The closings, they complained, were part of a pattern of racial indifference that the Greenblatt board had exhibited earlier when it cut a required course for teachers and staff on race relations and ousted a community committee that monitored minority relations.
Some of the closings broke up pairings of schools that had been combined specifically to achieve integration, redrew some boundaries that effectively made well-integrated schools more heavily concentrated with minorities than the board's own regulations allowed and in some cases, particularly in the lower Silver Spring area, proposed changes that would have forced minority students to be bused out of their neighborhood schools while white students remained at schools close to their homes.
Tension increased in 1982 when the Maryland State Board of Education overturned as "arbitrary and unreasonable" the local board's decision to close Rosemary Hills Elementary School in Silver Spring and change boundaries at Montgomery Blair High and Eastern Intermediate. Those schools had been at the heart of the school district's integration efforts before Greenblatt and her allies came to power.
Tied to what became a recurring charge of racism against Greenblatt was the belief expressed by some blacks and other political observers that she used the white, middle-class fear of integration through busing to gain political power.
"She was possessed with the use of power and she introduced to the board what was not there before: bloc voting," said Roscoe R. Nix, a school board member from 1974 to 1978 and president of the NAACP since 1980.
"It's not important if she is racist or not," he said. "She appealed to the basic prejudices of people and she knew that. I think it's accurate to say she was a conscious manipulator of racial prejudice of white people. And that is more devastating than being a racist. It makes you more culpable."
In retrospect, some educators said that the act of closing schools, even without the racial tension, would have been enough to stimulate public outcry. The student population, which in 1972 reached a peak of 126,000 students, had fallen to 95,000 by 1981 and created a need for action.
"Marian and the board got the public blame for school closings," said school system spokesman Ken Muir. "I think the board had a tremendous amount of guts to face that issue straight on. Many people applauded the back-to-basics efforts. Few applauded the school closings."
Greenblatt said "it's very hurtful" to be seen as a racist and that the community misunderstood her intentions.
"The whole thing was very disappointing. It bothers me. It really does," she said. "I think the changes I pushed would benefit disadvantaged students. . . . We would have achieved a lot more if we directed our attention toward standards. What counts is whether there is a very strong teacher and a good program. It's bucking the issue if all we're going to do is worrying about the number of blacks in a school."
But that message was lost, her critics and some of her supporters say, because Greenblatt lacked grace and finesse. It turned the fight from one of policy to one of personalities.
Scenes such as those at the final 1981 closing hearing, held at Wheaton High School, were typical of the divisions in the community. At a noisy seven-hour meeting, Takoma Park Mayor Sam Abbott and 75 supporters marched in front of the board to protest the closing of Takoma Park Junior High in an ethnically and economically mixed part of the county. Carrying placards depicting sheep, they chanted: "We are not sheep. We will not be moved, Greenblaaaatt!"
By 2 a.m., when the board had voted not to reconsider closing the school, Abbott jumped on stage, tried to wrestle the microphone away from the board president and yelled: "Cowards. See you in federal court!"
Greenblatt was not unscathed by her approach to education. In 1982 she lost her Republican primary bid for the 8th Congressional District seat to Elizabeth Spencer, who had criticized her for politicizing the school closings.
In that election year, Greenblatt saw her majority crumble. For the past two years, Greenblatt and Peyser have had to settle for playing the loyal but powerless opposition, and this year opted not to run for reelection.
"It's been an interesting experience to see how local government operates. It's amazing we educate any students at all, given what happens," said Greenblatt last week. "To have the most impact, a board has to know what it wants and how to accomplish it. We were going in that direction. I hope we don't lose ground."
In the past year, the board has taken steps that some observers say follow Greenblatt's original push for better education but in a less combative manner, one that fosters community participation and directs the issue of a growing minority population in Montgomery toward improving standards.
Most notable of the board's actions was its selection of School Superintendent Wilmer S. Cody, the former superintendent of the Birmingham school system who was credited with successfully desegregating that city's system and raising test scores. Since his arrival in Rockville, Cody has begun evaluating all schools and curricula, and has outlined strategies to narrow the gap in academic performance between minority students and white students.
Community leaders say that, while the Greenblatt and Peyser era ends tonight, its impact on the community's involvement in school board policies endures.
"Now the board of education is sensitive to community input and the community itself," Abbott said in an interview last week. " . . .Now there will be a highly visible citizen interest in education."