Mayo's busing debate takes on racial tinge

Suspicion: Although Mayo groups have condemned a death threat sent to the superintendent, some county residents say the letter reflects a racially exclusive atmosphere.

April 01, 2000|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Mayo parents vowed to fight fair when they heard that the children in their southern Anne Arundel community were to be bused to an Annapolis school while a new Mayo Elementary School was being built.

Opponents of Superintendent Carol S. Parham's plan circulated petitions, testified at school board meetings and hired a lawyer to appeal the decision, which was announced in February.

"People thought they were doing something positive," said Robin Greulich, a leader in the appeal. "The community rallied together for the welfare of the children. We were following the rules."

But someone broke the rules by writing a racially charged death threat to Parham, who is black, protesting the busing plan. It injected racism into what for weeks had seemed to be a routine dispute between parents and school officials.

The letter has also sparked debate about the racial climate in Mayo -- viewed by its residents as a tranquil, close-knit community and perceived by some blacks in the county as a white enclave that is off limits to them.

County police are searching for the letter's author, and the FBI has begun a civil rights investigation into the matter. Parham has been under county police guard since March 21.

"To be fair, the preponderance of the people [in Mayo] are race-neutral, but it has a reputation as a place where some minor elements in the community harbor these ill feelings," said Clemon Wesley, co-founder of RESPECT, a coalition of black organizations in Anne Arundel.

Residents of the picturesque waterfront community -- between the South and Rhode rivers south of Annapolis -- tend to view the death threat as an isolated incident rather than as a reflection on Mayo.

"I honestly don't think it's somebody from our cause," said Greulich, whose Mayo roots date to the 1870s.

"There's somebody in every neighborhood like that. It's not just Mayo," she said.

Mayo was once a community of summer cottages, but residential development has been intense in the past five years. Still, there's a sense of being apart in Mayo, and a small-town feeling prevails.

"Down here on this peninsula it's like a whole different world," said Mike Gunsauley, manager of the Selby Sub Shoppe in town. "You can feel it. The pace is slower."

Enthusiastic parents

At the heart of the community is Mayo Elementary, a source of pride for many residents, some of whom moved to the area because of the school, which has been recognized for its academic excellence with a National Blue Ribbon.

Mayo parents dote on the small, 64-year-old school, putting in countless volunteer hours and throwing lunches for its teachers.

"When they have a PTA meeting there, you'll see hundreds of cars," said Mayo resident Charles McCaffrey.

Mayo's elementary school is also outdated and crowded. Plans call for the school to be demolished in June to make way for a new school on the same site. With the plan came the difficult decision of where to send Mayo's 340 pupils and teachers during the two-year construction period.

After months of study and input from citizen committees, Parham concluded that the best solution was to house Mayo pupils in a separate wing of Annapolis Middle School, a solution that had been used successfully during other construction projects.

The decision drew an angry response from scores of Mayo parents, who packed community meetings to organize against the temporary move to bus the children from predominantly white Mayo to Annapolis Middle School, where 57 percent of the students are black.

"I never heard anybody make racial comments at the meetings, certainly no one associated with us," said Greulich, whose 8-year-old daughter represents the third generation of her family to attend Mayo Elementary.

Before long, parents hired a lawyer to appeal Parham's decision. Around town, local businesses put out collection jars for legal expenses with a plea taped to the outside: "Please Help Us Keep Our Children Close to Home."

Bus trip opposed

Mayo parents who started the opposition to the busing plan are trying to remain focused on their primary concerns. They say that a 45-minute one-way bus ride from Mayo to Annapolis in rush hour is too much for the pupils.

"We're trying to do what's best and keep the children close to home," said Kerrie Flaherty, an opponent of the busing plan. "I don't think my 5-year-old should be on the bus longer than he's at school."

Mayo parents have decried the death threat and joined with other community associations to offer a $1,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the letter writer.

The reward fund -- which includes pledges from black groups and a $15,000 contribution from the school board -- has topped $21,000.

Some black leaders in the Annapolis area see the death threat as the latest incident to cause racial tensions to flare.

"As a native Annapolitan, I can tell you this is part of a pattern that has occurred over the years," said Carl O. Snowden, a special assistant to the county executive and a former Annapolis city alderman.

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