Wilbur Friedman was a PTA president whose stepson was in kindergarten when the Montgomery County school board decided five years ago to close Pleasant View Elementary School.
Friedman, a lawyer, appealed the closing to the state Board of Education. He sued the school board in state and federal court. Then he petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a hearing. Although he lost every round, Friedman proved to be a formidable foe. The school system spent at least $10,000 defending itself against him.
"We can yell at him and tell him he's costing us a lot of money and stop it but he will just keep going," said school board President James Cronin.
During a decade of battles over school closings and desegregation plans, parents such as Friedman have brought community activism to new heights in Montgomery County, where residents are among the best educated and most affluent in the nation.
During the past 15 years, the county has closed 61 schools and parents have appealed 41 of those decisions, more than the combined appeals logged in the other 23 school districts in Maryland. Eleven of the Montgomery cases landed in court.
By contrast, Prince George's County, which has a larger student enrollment than Montgomery, has closed 65 schools since 1976 and only two have been appealed. Fairfax County, whose population is similar to Montgomery's in ethnic makeup and income level, has closed 25 schools since 1972. Only three were challenged in court.
Even though they know the odds of winning are against them, parents across Montgomery County have challenged hundreds of school board decisions, ranging from school closings to what kind of educational program is best for the handicapped. In the history of the school system, only one school closing has been overturned.
The cost of defending the second largest school district in the state against well-organized, well-educated and zealous parents is considerable: nearly half of the $2.3 million the system spent on all legal fees during the past six years. School closing fights alone have cost the school system about $300,000 of that total, according to school officials.
In private, some county officials say jokingly that it is parents who really run the school system, given the pressure they can exert by threatening to sue. At the very least, they make their presence felt.
"I know every time I vote on anything, including the approval of the minutes, someone may take us to court," remarked school board member Sharon DiFonzo.
Said Cronin: "You know that as you say something they will pick your argument clean."
"In this county elected officials know that the citizens are going to be on their case trying to help them make the right decision," said Vicki Rafel, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs.
The Montgomery parents' savvy has earned them a reputation as the most litigious and civic-minded in the state. But some officials question whether the unusual degree of parental involvement is good.
"When you know in your bones that you have followed the process and . . . you have been legally correct and you know in your head you have not been arbitrary or capricious and you know you are going to have to pay an attorney a substantial amount of money to defend a case merely because people are angry and irritated . . . that hurts," DiFonzo said.
But others said parental activism, even the kind that leads to the courtroom, is beneficial.
"Nine times out of 10 they are calling our attention to problems that must be fixed or injustices that have been done," said board member Blair Ewing. One example, he said, was when the state Board of Education reversed in 1982 a local board decision to close Rosemary Hills Elementary School and bus its mainly minority student population to other schools.
School officials said that the educational background, income level and political experience of Montgomery parents are what make them so willing to take on the school board. "They are not intimidated by the larger system," DiFonzo said.
Rose Crenca, who went from being a PTA parent to a County Council member, said parents in the county are "reasonably well educated and have more money than other jurisdictions" to spend on legal battles.
"It's the perfect setup for challenging the system should you seriously disagree," she said.
Another reason is that local PTAs can draw on an unusual amount of free expertise to fight unpopular school board decisions.
"I would venture to say there isn't a school community here that doesn't have one parent in the school who is a lawyer," said Judith Bresler, one of the attorneys hired by the school board to defend about 30 closings.
Neighborhood lawyers often donate their time to prepare appeals, saving PTAs thousands of dollars in expenses for outside lawyers. "Nobody on the parents' side is hiring an attorney to go in on attorney's fees . . . whereas we have to have real attorneys instead of pro bono attorneys," Cronin said.
Dale Majerle, a former orthodontist and the mother of two boys, and Karen Douse, a former librarian with two preschool children, are among 44 parents in Silver Spring who have appealed a school board decision to pair their neighborhood school, Oakview Elementary, with New Hampshire Estates.
The women, who live several blocks apart, have collected about 100 documents, which Douse keeps in a filing box in her kitchen.
Douse's husband Steve and three other neighborhood lawyers have spent weekends and nights writing the appeal, which Douse said saved as much as $20,000 in legal fees.
When Majerle and the Douses, with 50 pounds of documents, went to Baltimore in February for a hearing on the appeal, Majerle's husband Christopher stayed home with their four children.
The time spent has been worth it, they said.
"We had made up our minds to stay here but we weren't willing to sacrifice our children to stay here, so the only thing to do was fight for the kind of educational opportunity we thought we had when we moved here," Majerle said.
When the Charles W. Woodward High School community in Rockville decided to appeal the school board's decision to close its school, parents established Friends of Woodward Inc., a private nonprofit organization. The group asked for $100 donations to hire a Baltimore law firm to work on the appeal. Five neighborhood lawyers also helped reduce the legal expenses by working as volunteers on the case.
Jan Pawlowski, secretary of Friends of Woodward Inc., said the group decided to go outside for legal help after learning that Northwood High School community leaders had used lawyers in the neighborhood and lost three appeals at the state level in an effort to keep their school open.
"We thought if we had people who were more versed in this issue and working full time maybe our success would be greater than theirs," Pawlowski said.
But the available expertise in Montgomery goes beyond the legal profession. More often than not, PTA members include psychologists, engineers, environmentalists, writers, scientists and experts in demography and civil rights.
At a public hearing on the Woodward closing, a social worker from the neighborhood testified that closing the school would have traumatic effects on students. At a state hearing on Northwood, which the school board recommended closing in part because renovations would be too costly, a structural engineer from the community gave detailed testimony to try to show that the school system's estimates for the renovation were wrong. And at a recent state hearing, a social anthropologist from the Oakview community used facts and figures to illustrate what effect merging Oakview with predominantly minority New Hampshire Estates would have on racial balance.
George Fisher, former director of the school system's department of facilities planning, recalled what often happened when he met with community groups to explain how his staff arrived at enrollment projections and school capacity figures.
"In many cases, we'd go out to the community to talk about demographics and you'd find someone was on the staff of the park and planning commission or the Census Bureau and would have better training in demographics than the people on my staff," he said.
Montgomery County parents also are known for sophisticated presentations at school board meetings. Often they are armed with computer printouts of their testimony, which are efficiently distributed to reporters and school board members.
"At one point I was sitting at the table [during a budget hearing] with a calculator punching out numbers and adding them up and there was a person in the community who . . . had a data base [in his computer] and could go through this stuff in one-tenth the time we would," Fisher recalled. "He'd do it at home and bring a printout to the meeting."
Traditionally, housewives with small children have provided the most momentum for school protests, knocking on doors to collect signatures and taking unofficial head counts of children in their neighborhoods.
Parents and community leaders frequently bombard school administrators with requests for information, from the number of white students transferred to a magnet program to how the school system reached an enrollment projection.
Fisher said during the height of the school closings in the early 1980s, his staff spent about one-third of its time meeting with parents or assembling data for them.
Once the information is collected, parents will go to great lengths to organize a protest. Last year, for example, a group of Rockville parents showered the school board with about 1,000 letters protesting a plan to bus their children outside their neighborhood school area.
Sometimes, if parents are unhappy with a school board decision, they will meet with individual council members to try to get the decision reversed.
In recent weeks, Majerle and Douse have met with most of the council members and all of their aides to discuss the Oakview case.
"We are covering our bases everywhere," Majerle said.
Every so often, scrutiny by the county's parent-activists pays off for the school system. The PTA's Rafel said that even though parents sometimes "have made a royal pain of themselves . . .. overall it works out for the best because parents will draw officials' attention to the reality of a situation . . . . "
Last year, for example, Rafel said, parents informed school board members that the site selected for a new elementary school in the Germantown area was next door to a sludge treatment plant. The school board chose another site.
But that kind of effectiveness is rare. Most parents realize they face an uphill battle when they take on the school system.
"I feel we won't get anywhere but there is a slim hope," said Pawlowski, of the Woodward community.
Pleasant View's Friedman, having lost his fight to keep the school open -- "It gives me personal pain to go over there," he said -- has shifted gears. He is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to prevent the County Council from turning the school, located in Kensington, into a home for single-parent families.
"I'm glad I tried [to keep the school open] even though I lost," he said. "I hate to sound this preachy but if somebody does something terrible and you raise hell, you don't always win, but you have to try."