A report by a civil rights panel -- scheduled to be released this week after Tuesday's election -- concludes that school closing actions taken last year by the Montgomery County school board may result in "damage to community relations. . . for a long time to come."
The report, unanimously approved last month by the Maryland branch of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and prepared by the Mid-Atlantic office, is the latest critical evaluation of the board's policies on racial integration. It was hailed as a victory for minority groups and liberal activists who asked for the investigation, having charged repeatedly that the board is insensitive to minorities.
Commission officials said that except for minor changes, the final report will be identical to a draft obtained by The Washington Post yesterday. It also calls for a national study on the impact of school closings on minority students, so that other school systems can avoid the "degree of polarization" that occurred in Montgomery.
The current board's attitude toward minorities has become a focal point of the electoral campaign this fall. A slate of four liberal candidates, endorsed by a political action committee called EDPAC, swept to victory in last month's primary election after running a campaign that was highly critical of the board's handling of racial integration.
The conservatives, who control the seven-member board, need to win two of four contested seats to maintain the domination they have held the last four years. In response to the threat from EDPAC, the conservative majority launched a counterattack in the last three weeks aimed at showing that integration had improved in the county as a result of their actions.
The commission report will be released Wednesday or Thursday, according to Everett Waldo, assistant director of the Mid-Atlantic office. He said there was no connection between the release date and the election in which two members of the conservative majority are up for re-election. A commission staff member, who asked not to be identified, however, said the report could have been released before the election, but that it was delayed because the director of the Mid-Atlantic office, Edward Rutledge, felt it was not their office's role to influence elections.
Rutledge was not available for comment. But Waldo said the closeness of the release date to the election is "coincidental" and that reports that its timing may have been politically motivated were unfounded. Final ajustments in the report were finished within the last few weeks, he said, and many of the delays can be attributed to requests by the advisory commission for aditional information--including the Maryland Board of Education's decisions on school closing challenges.
Martha Church, the former chairwoman of the commission and president of Hood College in Frederick, said in an interview however that she resigned in "frustration" last month over what she called the numerous delays in the release of the report. Church said the report should have been ready by the third week of August. The advisory committee met in January to hear testimony on the closings.
The latest report -- which carries no enforcement authority, but now will be sent to the national office for approval--agrees substantially with the state board's findings in July that the county board violated its own racial balance guidelines in decisions affecting a number of schools in the lower Silver Spring area. The commission's report, however, is broader reaching than the rulings of the state board, which were confined to overturning three specific decisions. The overall emphasis of the commission's report encompasses a wider criticism of the board's attitudes toward integration.
Pupil reassignment and school closing decisions "could have been dealt with in a much more judicious, wise and sensitive manner," the report said, quoting former student boardmember Jonathon Lipson. But "by using a chainsaw, rather than the scalpel that was needed, (the board) enflamed and further divided an already polarized community," added the report, still using Lipson's words. The board, the report concludes, should have considered more carefully the effect school closings would have had on minorities and integrated communities.
The commission essentially rejected arguments and extensive testimony from county board members and school officials that the closing and boundary redrawing decisions improved the overall racial balance in the county's 158 schools. The majority of the board argued before the commision in January that the burden of integration had been fairly divided between minority and white children.
The commission did not agree and instead supported the argument from opponents of the closings that integration involves more than looking at absolute numbers. "Thus, while countywide averages may appear to support the equitable impact assertion," the report said, "the narrative fails to consider the more focused analyses."
Board members who could be reached yesterday reiterated that their decisions had been fair and unbiased.
"Naturally when you focus on an individual community you may find a different kind of effect," said Joseph Barse, referring to the focus on the lower Silver Spring area. "But when you look at the entire plan you can see there was real equity on a county-wide basis. . . when we had a choice between closing a high-minority school and a low one, we did not always chose the high one," said Barse, one of two incumbents seeking re-election.
Blair Ewing, the lone dissenter on the board, said the report showed that" Whether this board has intended to or not, it has practiced discrimination and advanced community discord."