Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist yesterday asked the county school board to reconsider its decision to close Rosemary Hills Elementary School and said the board's actions could threaten the racial stability of the Silver Spring area and lead to federal intervention.
The school board's decision on Thursday to close Rosemary Hills, a longtime symbol of the effort to promote greater racial balance in the county's schools, was singled out by Gilchrist as an action that will "have an impact far beyond its boundaries."
Gilchrist's comments marked the first time he has spoken out on an issue that has generated increasing bitterness among liberals and blacks in Montgomery County.
When asked whether his statement was meant to politically separate his administration from the predominantly conservative school board, Gilchrist aides said it was based on the belief that changing the school patterns could destabilize improvements in the Silver Spring area and open the door to charges of resegregation.
Gilchrist said the existing pattern of Silver Spring-Takoma Park elementary school groupings should be preserved and expressed his support for Superintendent of Schools Edward Andrews, whose recommendation to keep Rosemary Hills open was rejected by the school board.
"I am moved to state my public support for Superintendent Andrews' views," Gilchrist said, adding that the pattern of economic stagnation in the Silver Spring area was changing for the better, and the reason is "the stability of the community."
Gilchrist said that he shared Andrews' conviction "that our county should continue to demonstrate support for minority balance and that we achieve our goals without litigation or federal intervention."
The board's decision to close Rosemary Hills, located in a predominantly minority area of Silver Spring, will break up its pairing with Chevy Chase Elementary School, located in an affluent white section. The pairing, in which children from both communities attend kindergarten through second grade at Rosemary Hills and grades three through six at Chevy Chase, was established five years ago by a previous board to enhance racial balance.
The board's five-member majority contends that the closing will actually improve such balance in a larger area and will promote kindergarten through sixth grade elementary schools as a standard for the county.
However, the action was denounced as racially motivated by two board members who voted against it Thursday night.
Yesterday, only one of the board's seven members, Carol Wallace, had read Gilchrist's comments. She said she agreed with Gilchrist that the board should try to adhere to the superintendent's recommendations for the Takoma Park and Silver Spring areas, most of which she supports already.
"I personally would hope the board would not tamper with anything in the Silver Spring area and follow the superintendent's recommendations," Wallace said.
Although it is unusual for the county executive to state strong opinions about specific school closings, county officials in the past have been heavily involved in school decisions that have affected housing and development in the county.
Gilchrist aides said that the executive felt more comfortable in making a public statement after Andrews made his own recommendations, adding that his interest in speaking out was the "value and health of Silver Spring-Takoma Park."
The area is home to most of Montgomery County's black and Hispanic residents, and Gilchrist expressed fear that this concentration could be increased by the school board's actions.
"Changes in school patterns can too easily operate to destabilize the housing patterns -- just as we have adopted redesigned housing policies which include initiatives to prevent concentrations of minority citizens in a single community," he said.