The Montgomery County Board of Education turned aside emotional appeals from parents yesterday and approved busing pupils from a Rockville neighborhood to nearby Richard Montgomery High School to increase sagging enrollments there.
The board's 6-to-1 decision affects pupils graduating from Ritchie Park Elementary School in the Horizon Hills neighborhood, who will first be bused to Julius West Intermediate School and then to Richard Montgomery High.
Parents complained that about 60 percent of the 440 students who would be bused could walk to Thomas S. Wootton High School. The controversy, however, took on racial overtones because Richard Montgomery has a 38 percent minority enrollment and an aging facility while Wootton is a newer school with a highly regarded academic program and an 18 percent minority population.
After the school board approved the transfer, some Ritchie Park parents broke down in tears and quickly filed out of the meeting room. PTA officials refused to talk to reporters.
"Oh, God," moaned one parent.
"We're finished," said another.
George Beckerman, a Richard Montgomery parent and PTA official, immediately approached Ritchie Park PTA President Ann Geldon, shook her hand and said, "I look forward to working with you and I hope to have a good transition."
Beckerman said later that the decision to send Ritchie Park pupils to Richard Montgomery "means that the future of Richard Montgomery as a viable school has been assured."
The school, in the heart of Rockville, has been plagued by chronic underenrollment. While it can accommodate 1,700 students, it has 1,200 and before yesterday's action the enrollment was expected to drop below 1,000 in a few years.
The school board has taken other steps to improve the school's academic program by adding a new magnet-style curriculum that is expected to draw 400 students by 1991 and selecting a new principal.
Wootton has 150 students more than its 1,700 capacity.
The board's decision means that beginning in 1988 pupils from Ritchie Park Elementary will be assigned to Julius West Intermediate and then to Richard Montgomery. They now go to Frost Intermediate and on to Wootton.
The controversy among parents in the Wootton and Richard Montgomery communities was reminiscent of some of bitter school-closing battles of the 1970s that sometimes involved issues of race and class. Some school and community officials accused the Ritchie Park parents of not wanting their children to attend Richard Montgomery because of its minority population and sizable group of non-English-speaking students.
The parents countered that they chose to live in the community of handsome, single-family homes in the $200,000 price range on the west side of Falls Road because of the reputation and academic programs offered at Wootton.
It also has become a campaign issue in the Rockville election because Mayor Steve Van Grack and council member Steve Abrams live in the Ritchie Park community and opposed the boundary change. Van Grack and Abrams are up for reelection in November.
While school board members considered other alternatives to busing Ritchie Park pupils, they said the boundary change plan was the best solution.
Only board member Bruce Goldensohn, the newest member of the board and a resident of Gaithersburg, opposed the boundary change. He said the task force of community leaders and school officials who studied the issue was not representative of all the up-county communities involved. The task force recommended by a 17-to-2 vote to send Ritchie Park pupils to Julius West and Richard Montgomery.
Board member Robert Shoenberg said the solution to Richard Montgomery's declining enrollment "has the obvious disadvantage that we are busing walkers."
However, he said, "Even with that flaw, I see no better solution."
Board member Blair Ewing said he was not convinced by the Ritchie Park parents' arguments that the special magnet program will draw enough students to counterbalance the drop in enrollment.
He said he feared that without the additional pupils from Ritchie Park, the magnet program would turn the school into "a special school" where the majority of the students would be in the magnet program.
In other action yesterday, the school board agreed to a County Council plan to renovate Northwood High School and use it as a temporary facility to accommodate students from schools undergoing renovation.