The parents spoke last Thursday night--and the Prince George's County Board of Education listened.
Then the board acted, revising a plan to end 14 years of door-to-door busing of magnet school students and adding more stops in neighborhoods to try to address parents' concerns that the initial plan was inconvenient and potentially dangerous.
Late last month, the board said it would require the majority of the county's 12,000 magnet school students to go to the schools closest to their homes to catch the magnet buses. Parents said that they would have trouble dropping off their children before work and that it would be dangerous to allow them to walk long distances home after school.
By last Thursday, the board had modified the plan, after more than 200 parents called or wrote to the school system to complain. But if board members thought that the compromise would make the nearly 200 parents on hand happy, they were wrong. Dozens stood up to address the board and to express more dissatisfaction with the plan and the general state of public education in Prince George's.
The meeting marked a notable moment in the recent history of the school system. The parents' attendance was about four times the usual turnout for board meetings; often criticized by school officials for not being more involved in the county's education system, the parents made their voices heard and were able to get the school system to change.
Stunned school board members had their own questions: Where have the parents been all this time? Where was the public outcry when the school system was fighting for more money from the county executive? Where were they during an unsuccessful drive to repeal a county tax cap to get more money for schools?
"We have been very unsuccessful getting what we saw last night: the representation of articulate, upper-income folks getting involved as advocates in school funding early in the process," said board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland). "In fact, we've failed."
Thornton added that if parents had been this vocal from the beginning, he believes that County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) would have forked over the additional $17 million for teacher pay raises that the school board had requested. Curry said in the spring that although he supports raises for teachers, he does not believe the school board has proved it will spend the money wisely.
Without the extra funds from Curry, the board voted to cut or scale back several programs--including the magnet school busing--and to devote about $7 million to teacher pay raises and recruiting.
Despite the modifications of the magnet busing plan, parents still were grumbling last week. The revised plan is still inconvenient and potentially dangerous, the parents said, because magnet students live farther from one another than students who attend other schools, so the neighborhood bus stops still will be far away.
Furthermore, the parents said, the board has not done a good job of explaining the need for the cut in the busing program or explaining how the new plan will be implemented.
"This is a cockamamie plan," said Ken Austin, who has a child in Rogers Heights Elementary's French Immersion program. "It's almost as if they were devoting more energy to finding ways to get parents out here to complain instead of figuring out the real places they could save money."
Donna Beck, a longtime parent activist who attends most school board meetings and public hearings, said she agrees with Thornton that the parents got involved too late.
As to whether the school board can engage parents in the future and encourage more involvement, Beck said the board would have to change its past posture of ignoring parents.
"The parents have been ignored for so long, they have fully realized their voice does not mean much," she said.
Thornton said he hopes parents get more involved. But he cautioned that parents should not split themselves along class lines when fighting for programs, but rather should work to ensure that all programs are funded. Magnet school parents, he said, tend to be the most affluent parents in the district and must work to further the system as a whole.
"I heard comments last night from parents who were saying the magnet schools are the best programs, and it was clear the statements were about an economic caste system, and that bothers me a lot," Thornton said. "What I heard was: We're at the last step next to leaving [the system for private school]. As a community, we need to talk about that. . . . As someone who was instrumental in creating the magnet program, I never countenanced that kind of thing."