OAKLAND -- Garrett County's voters gave control of their schools to the Christian right in November, and ever since, the mission of public education has been the hottest talk everywhere you turn here.
It's not because of wholesale changes in curricula or Bible-thumping lectures that might conform to some stereotypical images of what Christian fundamentalists want in public schools. Nothing like that has happened -- although some fear it will.
Even so, it's a new school day for Maryland's westernmost county, which has become the first in the state, and among a small but growing number of places nationally, where the Christian right has won control of policy-making for a public school system. The situation has state and even a couple of national groups watching with interest.
As three fundamentalist board members elected last fall, joined by a fourth member who sometimes votes with them, have begun learning their jobs, Christian-right tenets such as "family values," school prayer, and opposition to federal and state educational mandates have quickly become board meeting fare.
Prayer is back -- if only in the form of invocations local clergy give at school board meetings, not in classrooms or during graduations (although the board has made it clear that valedictorians are free to offer prayers in their speeches).
Notably, monthly school board meetings -- sparsely attended for years -- are attracting untypical crowds that quickly overflow the usual board room and at times have erupted in partisan yelling and clapping.
Jerome Ryscavage, superintendent of the 5,100-student system, who attributed some of the larger attendance to the new makeup of the board that oversees his work, downplays the significance of such activity. New boards, he said, always attract increased public interest.
Asked if the new board was a problem for administrators or teachers or if daily operations of schools have been affected, he replied: "Such has not been the case, not that I can see at this time."
Three substantial issues related to an agenda generally associated with the Christian right have been formally put on the table for consideration in 1995:
* The board voted to open up the process of selecting textbooks and materials to parents and the community. Language in the old policy was unclear and provided less opportunity for parents to review materials before their adoption by the board.
* A board-picked committee is examining guidelines for "outcomes-based education," which set goals for what students are to know in courses and in their schooling.
"My main concern is that this has proven to be an academically failed method of education," said Patrick Riley, a Christian Coalition member and resident of Accident who is one of the new board members. "Test scores have dipped where outcomes-based education has been implemented. There's a de-emphasis on [teaching] concrete factual information."
* Another board committee is examining "multicultural education," a state ruling requiring school districts to include contributions and histories of ethnic and minority groups in courses. Some board members in this heavily white county are concerned that the contributions of traditional historical figures may be overlooked when contributions by minorities are added.
"People are afraid because they don't understand black people," said Charlotte Sebold, 47, a McHenry homemaker in her first term who does not consider herself a member of the Christian Coalition but who has attended some of its meetings. "Fear causes prejudices. People here haven't been subjected to other cultures. It's something we have to step into very carefully."
Teaching morals at issue
Hannah Sincell, 65, in the third year of her first four-year term on the board who considers herself its only member not affiliated with the Christian right, said fears among some extend beyond race.
"They don't want teachers or people in the schools doing anything with morals, values. I get the impression they think homosexuals will get in and teach our children," she said.
"When homosexuality came up at a meeting, I spoke up and said most people weren't homosexual because they wanted to be, and they tooted and howled at me," she said. "They believe their interpretation of the Bible is the only interpretation. I have a problem with that."
And she said: "These people have been questioning everything since day one. They want us to teach their children two plus two is four and c-a-t spells cat, and that's it."
At least two new board members wonder what the fuss is about.
"We're looking out for parental rights more than previously was the case," said Dale Carpenter, a McHenry resident and new board member who belongs to the politically conservative Christian Coalition that television evangelist Pat Robertson founded. "And we're being criticized because of that. . . . We're just making sure parents have some say."
Added Mr. Riley: "We support a lot of mainstream American values that a majority of citizens lead their lives by. If we were a radical fringe group, we wouldn't have been accepted by the public."
1.6 million members claimed
The Christian Coalition claims that with 1.6 million members it is the nation's fastest-growing religious conservative group. The Chesapeake, Va.-based organization is most closely associated with fundamentalist and evangelical churches.
"What is happening there is no different than what is happening in Ohio, Pennsylvania or California," said Skipp Porteous, national director of the Institute for First Amendment Studies in Great Barrington, Mass. "They look for demons in everything the state wants to do."
Chip Berlet, an analyst for Political Research Associates, a nonprofit think-tank in Cambridge, Mass., that studies aspects of the American political right, said the Christian Coalition agenda is part of a "real tug of war" over U.S. culture.
"This is part of a pattern across the country," he said. "One emphasis of the Christian Coalition is to get involved in races, especially school boards, because they believe the education system manipulates children on behalf of a secular, humanistic, amoral view."
The result has been divisive in mountainous Garrett County. It's an isolated area with 30,000 people who live mainly in small towns and attend many small, fundamentalist churches. Both those in favor or suspicious of the Christian right board members are afraid to speak out publicly.
Opposition groups formed
Some bold enough to voice their concerns, such as Gloria Salazar, an Oakland mother of a sixth-grade daughter, have formed a new local group to monitor the board.
"I'm a Christian, and I don't consider their actions Christian," said Salazar, who said she never dreamed she would become politically active. "Their bottom line is they want to do away with public education as we know it today. On a monthly basis, they target areas."
Ms. Salazar and others said they fear the board's goals include limiting sex education, eliminating foreign languages and teaching creationism -- the biblical version of how life began.
Two of the three new board members ousted incumbents with long service. Mr. Carpenter, 33, a financial analyst, won by 1,186 votes, and Mr. Riley won by a much smaller margin, just 119 votes out of 7,059 cast.
Rodney Durst, 35, a Swanton postal worker chosen as the board's president, was unopposed in his district, where an incumbent opted not to seek re-election. He said he has attended Christian Coalition meetings but does not consider himself a member.
The winners' campaigns focused on "family values," and one -- Mr. Carpenter -- said he campaigned almost exclusively by visiting churches. Mr. Durst and Mr. Riley said their quest to join the school board stemmed from concerns about academics. They said they believe the county schools, although good, should emphasize the basics: reading, writing, science, math and history. Mr. Carpenter said one of the reasons he chose to run was his belief that Christians need to be more involved.
"A lot of good people across the country got the notion we were better off not to get involved in the schools," he said. "I think the Christian community really dropped the ball. Most Christians got out of the public school arena, and I feel that was a mistake."
About 40 percent of the county's voters cast ballots in the school-board election, a typical turnout, election officials said. But some citizens contend, nevertheless, that the numbers were higher than usual and that voters were galvanized by a perception that the then board was a "rubber stamp" for the school administration and out of touch with values of the county's mostly conservative residents.
Not so, say some. Beverly Ann Murphy, a 12-year board incumbent from Grantsville that Mr. Riley ousted, is one who said the November winners were misleading.
"They labeled people," she said. "I was labeled as being a non-Christian. They ran ads in newspapers about board members not being concerned about the same issues Christians are concerned about."
School prayer controversy
Mrs. Murphy said she was singled out as taking a "stand against school prayer" because she sided with other board members in saying that prayer at graduations was inappropriate.
Mr. Riley acknowledged that during his campaign, her stance was pointed out, but he also noted that some board members misunderstood local sentiment about the prayer issue.
"The school prayer issue last year was a hot one," he said. "People want prayers in the school. There's a deeper underlying issue. People see America [in the past] in a rosier light than America in 1995. They think we have lost a lot of moral stability. They attach the loss of school prayer with that. It's a symbolic issue for people to deal with it."
The controversy in Garrett County has attracted the attention of the Maryland State Teachers Association. "We regard this as a serious affair and not something to be taken lightly," said Roger Kuhn, an MSTA spokesman.
Although the Christian right winning an election has prompted controversy here and elsewhere, Mr. Porteous, of the First Amendment organization, points out that it galvanizes the public.
"In a sense, they are doing democracy good," he said. "My problem isn't with the Christian right. It's with voter apathy. In an average school board race, just 10 percent of the voters show up. When the Christian right starts rearing its head, it gets a few more voters out."
Mike Russell, a Christian Coalition spokesman, said members are encouraged to become educated on the issues and to vote. He said the coalition doesn't endorse or finance candidates. Only about 2 percent of its members seek public office or win election, he said.
And Mr. Porteous said, they don't stay in office. They usually upset a majority of voters, he said, and "usually face tremendous opposition the next time around. They're usually pretty unpopular."