In a dispute that sparked intense pressure from parents in southern Anne Arundel County -- and an anonymous death threat against the school superintendent -- the school board has shelved plans to temporarily bus more than 300 Mayo Elementary School pupils to Annapolis Middle School beginning this fall.
Mayo parents praised the school board's decision, saying it will spare their children a 45-minute trip each way while allowing time to pursue a more palatable solution.
Local black leaders said the board appeared to have caved in to a racially charged death threat against Superintendent Carol S. Parham, who is black and who hatched the plan to bus the Mayo pupils while a school is built on the site of the old one.
Most Mayo Elementary pupils are white. Annapolis Middle is predominantly black.
"We think it sends a bad message that the board can be intimidated by threats such as the one made against Dr. Parham," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Anne Arundel chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We don't want this [decision] to encourage other people to do this."
Board President Paul Rudolph did not return phone calls yesterday, but the board's assistant, Maura Stevenson, denied that Wednesday's decision to put off the busing had anything to do with the typed, epithet-laden threat sent to Parham last month.
The board's written order offered no explanation.
Mayo parents who have led the fight against the busing plan -- and who loudly condemned the threat -- saw in the board's decision a willingness to let them pursue a land swap that would allow a school to be built near the existing school instead of on the same site.
That would avoid the need for relocating the pupils during the two years of construction.
"That's all we wanted, to keep the children close to home," said Robin Greulich, a parent who chairs the Mayo Relocation Committee.
"How can it be viewed as the board caving in when that threat did not come from the Mayo Relocation Committee? We've done everything aboveboard, by the law, by the rules, by the book," Greulich said.
Police have made no arrest in connection with the threat, despite more than $20,000 in reward money offered.
Parham, who remains under police guard, declined to comment on the board's decision. According to the board's order, she did not object.
The board did not veto Parham's plan, which she announced in February.
Rather, it put off from this month until after June 30 an appeal hearing sought by Mayo parents and community groups. The same parents and community groups requested the postponement.
The result is a delay of at least a year in plans to build a Mayo Elementary to replace a 64-year-old building that is too cramped for the school's 311 pupils, the board said.
That means no relocation at least until after the 2000-2001 school year, school officials said.
Some wondered why parents worked so hard to keep their children out of a spare wing at Annapolis Middle.
"Parents would rather their kids stay in deplorable conditions for another year rather than spend any time with African-Americans," said Lewis Bracy of the Maryland Forum of African American Leaders.
Greulich has said the long bus trip would have disrupted families and exhausted children. Parents are hoping that the proposed land swap will make the relocation issue moot.
Their goal is to build on the Mayo Civic Association's 8-acre property, which would be swapped for the 7-acre site of the existing school.
The civic association would use the school as a community center.
"We were just brainstorming, saying there's got to be a better way," said Kerrie Flaherty, adding that the idea arose during a conversation with another parent after Parham announced her plan.
Greulich called the land-swap proposal "very preliminary," but said the board's decision shows it is seriously considering the idea.
Parham has asked her staff to examine the concept, said P. Tyson Bennett, the school board's attorney.
Flaherty said Parham has released funds to begin an environmental review of the site.