ANY PARENTS AND students whose public schools are affected by the shiftings and closings under consideration throughout the region know how emotional these controversies can become -- and how difficult the problems can be to resolve. But in Prince George's County, members of the school board have demonstrated to a fare-thee-well how to overturn years of careful planning and procedures in favor of narrow political considerations and a disregard for what the citizen task forces have done for them.
Last spring, after a year of study and months of public pressure, the board had decided to approach these problems in two steps. First, the board would work closely with the citizen task forces to determine which schools would be closed. After that, the board would try to reorganize its busing plan to accommodate the changes. But as staff writer Jackson Diehl has reported, board members changed their minds last week and -- in about 35 minutes, in response to three separate requests by members -- added three more elementary schools to its list of 17 under consideration for closing. The effect was to ignore the four criteria the board itself had established for picking such schools: enrollment, transportation distance, operating cost savings and quality of physical facilities.
The board's moves also served to undo the complex and constructive work of the community task forces, to tamper with busing patterns and to invite court action for changing the racial distribution of students in certain areas. As if that weren't enough, the board also tossed aside its previous promise not to consider closings in areas where schools were closed two years ago.
One school added to the list, for example, was Andrews Air Force Base Elementary -- which has never been studied for closing and which is enrolled at 83 percent of its capacity -- but which just happens to be across the street from Camp Springs Elementary, which the superintendent has recommended closing and which is enrolled at 55 percent of its capacity. Board chairman Norman H. Saunders wants Camp Springs to stay open, and never mind what others have recommended. Another school, proposed for closing by board member Angelo Castelli, is Owen Hills Road Elementary. The student body at this school, which is enrolled at 99 percent of capacity, is 82.6 percent black; and it is the neighborhood school for 300 children. They have to be placed elsewhere -- while a large group of whites from the school would be sent to a school attended by two of Mr. Castelli's children, where the enrollment is 51.5 percent black. The third proposal, by board member A. James Golato, would close Randolph Village Elementary, causing changes both in busing plans and racial balances.
The board may not necessarily vote to close these three schools -- but unlike the other schools on the list, each of these has a strong advocate on the board, with personal and/or parochial interests in seeing it closed. But by bringing up these changes now -- after an entire delicate process had been allowed to run its course -- the school board is not only upsetting its own procedures, agreements and busing patterns, but it is setting the county up for another agonizing court suit and all the attendant racial tensions. The board should reconsider its actions and stick to the list of schools it already had for possible closings.