A slate of candidates opposed to the current conservative Montgomery County school board majority led a field of 15 yesterday in a bitterly contested primary for four seats on the seven-member panel. In November, voters will elect four from the top eight finalists in yesterday's contest.
With all the vote counted, two incumbent board members trailed an alliance of four candidates who had the backing of a bipartisan political action committee known as EDPAC, formed last year by board opponents. Incumbents Joseph Barse and Carol Wallace, running fifth and sixth, nonetheless won the right to appear on the November ballot.
Although Barse, an economist with the Agriculture Department, and former board president Wallace were the only incumbents seeking reelection, the board's conservative majority could be toppled Nov. 2 since four of the seven seats are open.
Board Member Marian Greenblatt, who had led the conservative majority, apparently will remain on the board. She was defeated yesterday by former board member Elizabeth Spencer, who resigned to oppose Greenblatt in the race for the Republican nomination for the 8th District House seat held by Rep. Michael Barnes, a Democrat. The other vacancy occurred when Board President Eleanor Zappone announced she would not seek reelection.
Marilyn Praisner was the front-runner yesterday, receiving 40,596 votes in a turnout officials described as lighter than in other recent school board contests. A higher vote had been expected because of recent controversies over school closings, problems of declining enrollments and disagreements over racial issues.
"The county wants a new school board," Praisner said last night. Robert Shoenberg, one of her running mates, agreed that voters "clearly" were giving a mandate to change the board's direction as well as its membership.
"I'm very surprised at the result," said Barse, whose two ticket mates ran ninth and 10th. "I think the school-closing issue was probably most of it."
After Praisner, the seven other primary winners with their totals were her three running mates, Odessa Shannon, 33,770, James Cronin, 32,346, and Shoenberg, 32,176; Barse, 26,842; Wallace, who ran independently, 25,970; and Tim O'Shea, 21,983, and Barry Klein, 20,905, both on the Moderates for the Montgomery County School Board slate.
Although the top eight finishers will square off in the November general elections, campaign workers for EDPAC said it was important to finish the primary as close to the top four positions as possible.
"The order of the primary dictates the outcome of the general election," said John Gerson, the EDPAC chairman who also serves as campaign manager for the alliance. He said it would be "very difficult to come back if we finish fifth, sixth or eighth."
Barse and Wallace have been criticized by community leaders and political opponents for their roles in disbanding the board's old Minority Relations Monitoring Committee in favor of a less "confrontational" group, and for raising the determining percentage of minority students that indicates when a school is racially imbalanced.
Tensions were exacerbated last November when the board voted to close 28 schools, including Rosemary Hills Elementary--a national symbol of voluntary integration efforts. In a lengthy appeals process that has yet to be fully resolved, the Maryland Board of Education took the unprecedented step of reversing a local board-ordered closure in ruling that Rosemary Hills remain open, and halting the board's plan to alter attendance patterns of Montgomery Blair High and Eastern Intermediate schools.
Over the objections of several organizations and a majority on the County Council, the school board, led by Wallace, Barse and Greenblatt, appealed that reversal to the county's Circuit Court. But a judge ruled last week that the court had no jurisdiction, making the state board's decision final.
Opposing candidates also accused the board of regulating the school system instead of setting policy, hurting teacher morale, and consistently going against the advice of Superintendent Edward Andrews.
Wallace, on the other hand, cited the board's accomplishments in bringing more textbooks to the classroom, reducing class sizes to improve instruction, building a new upcounty junior high school as well as a school for children with drug-related problems.