One PTA official has received numerous death threats over the telephone. A PTA president has had the back window of her car shot out. And the car of yet another PTA official was the target of a hit-and-run accident in the middle of the night.
Although hard to prove, PTA officials believe these malicious incidents involving three different school PTAs are connected to a plan to close Charles W. Woodward High School in Rockville and merge it with Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.
Without a doubt, school officials agree, the battle over Woodward has become more bitter than they expected, even pitting one group of Woodward parents against another.
Yesterday, 400 to 500 students from Woodward High rallied at the school. They stood at the edge of Old Georgetown Road and waved placards at passing cars. The placards said, "Keep Woodward Open," and "Hell No, We Won't Go to Walter Johnson."
Despite the protests from students and their parents, Montgomery County school officials have said that low enrollments are forcing them to consider closing one of the two high schools in Area 2, which encompasses north Bethesda and south Rockville.
School Superintendent Wilmer S. Cody has presented the school board with several proposals for schools at every level in Area 2, including closing Woodward and merging it with the nearby Walter Johnson.
The emotionalism of the battle has surprised even the more seasoned board members, who only last spring won an eight-year battle to close Northwood High School in Silver Spring.
"I think this is the most intense thing I've ever seen of all the school closings," said school board President Bob Shoenberg.
"It's ugly and it's going to get uglier," predicted board member Sharon DiFonzo.
The proposals will be the subject of a daylong public hearing Saturday at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, which is expected to draw hundreds of parents and students. Also expected to be discussed are several proposals by the school board to add elementary schools to the cluster of schools served by Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.
School board proposals include assigning either Ritchie Park Elementary School or Farmland Elementary to Richard Montgomery. Ritchie Park students now are channeled to Wooten High School and Farmland students to Woodward.
Many of the proposals have met with intense opposition from parents and students. Ritchie Park parents are disturbed by the plan to reassign their children to Richard Montgomery because, they say, the schools their children now attend are within walking distance of their homes.
Farmland parents complain that to move their children from Woodward to Richard Montgomery would disturb friendships with other neighborhood children and prevent them from participating in community athletic and religious programs.
"We would prefer not to see Woodward closed but we accept the fact that it probably will be," said Ken Caplan, president of the Farmland PTA. "We believe we can live in harmony at Walter Johnson."
The plan to close Woodward has split area residents, with one faction accepting the need for the merger and another faction strongly opposed to the closing.
Susan Pappas, the former president of the Woodward PTA who resigned several weeks ago because her opinion did not coincide with that of the rest of the PTA members, said that when she began studying the proposal to merge the two schools, she favored keeping Woodward open. As she began looking at school and county enrollment projections, she said she changed her mind.
"I saw the writing on the wall, that a consolidation was inevitable," Pappas said. "But the minute I started to suggest that we should possibly start to look toward consolidation and toward negotiating a merger . . . the community became absolutely outraged. Some people called me traitor, Benedict Arnold, to my face."
Rob Bernstein, the newly elected president of the Woodward PTA, said Pappas' position did not reflect the views of the majority of the PTA members.
"She's entitled to her own opinion but what she isn't entitled to is to advocate that personal opinion when the board she represents is of a different opinion," he said.
Bernstein said Woodward PTA members oppose closing their school and will ask the board to defer voting on the merger to give them more time to prepare a response.
The school system's "numbers are not accurate, but even assuming they are accurate, by adding a couple of staff members, the quality of our programs can be maintained," Bernstein said. "There are kids here who enjoy the educational experience they are having and they don't wish to be consolidated with anyone."
Stacy Farrar, president of the Woodward student government, said, "Before, the parents were divided, but now everyone wants to keep Woodward open, no matter what."
Several board members said the proposed merger is inevitable in light of declining enrollments at Woodward and Johnson high schools in the last 10 to 15 years, and school projections showing a continued decline into the 1990s.
Woodward's enrollment has slipped from a high of 1,143 in 1977 to 955 students this year. Walter Johnson reached a peak enrollment of 2,277 students in 1961 but has only 1,023 this year.
Although Richard Montgomery High School, with 1,245 students this year, is not plagued by under-enrollments yet, school officials predict its enrollment will decline to 975 by 1990.
School officials predict Walter Johnson's student body will drop to 795 by 1990, and Woodward's to 792 that same year.
"It's pretty clear we are going to have a merger," Shoenberg said. "We've seen it coming for a long time. The question was whether it was going to get so bad that we had to do something about it, and the answer is 'yes.' "
The Walter Johnson PTA strongly favors merging the two schools at Walter Johnson. Cody has recommended that the full consolidation be done in 1988. He has also recommended that the two schools be combined at the Walter Johnson site because the school has room for 1,625 students compared to Woodward, which has room for only 1,080 students. The two schools are within half a mile of each other.
Jinny Miller, coordinator of the Walter Johnson cluster of schools, said she had asked that the consolidation be completed by the fall of 1987. "Since there are beginning to be such strong feelings in the two communities, the sooner they consolidate the students the better," she said.
DiFonzo said one of the reasons it's necessary to merge the two schools is that educational programs suffer once a school's enrollment falls below 1,000. In under-enrolled schools, she said, it is often difficult to take as many honors courses because they are not offered often enough.
Laurie Dixon, a 16-year-old honors student at Walter Johnson who hopes to attend one of several Ivy League colleges after she graduates in 1987, said that because Johnson does not have enough students, it can offer only one section of many honors classes. This has led to scheduling conflicts and forced her to drop her French studies and precalculus.
"It will look very strange to the colleges when they see I suddenly dropped French and math," she explained. "They may think, 'Did she suddenly get lazy?' Or maybe they'll think I couldn't handle [the class] at a higher level."
Even though the proposed merger would not help her because she will graduate next year, Dixon said consolidation is best for both schools.