Bowie officials say city's getting a 'bad rap' image
Aug. 3, 2000
Catherine Hollingsworth
Staff Writer

Racial issue swirls around county plan

to relocate Bladensburg High students

Bowie officials are concerned about the city's image in the aftermath of a heated town hall meeting last month that caused racial issues to surface.

Many local residents who gathered at the meeting July 18 strongly objected to a plan to move 1,200 students from Bladensburg High School to a building in Bowie.

The Bladensburg students, which is majority black, need a temporary home for two years starting in January 2001 while their new school is under construction.

How this issue has played in the press is of special concern to some Bowie City Council members who say the city is getting a bum rap.

"We're being degraded right and left," said Councilman Bill Aleshire. "What do you think it does to Bowie? It's a bad rap."

Much of the controversy seems to stem from one man, whose remarks at that July meeting appeared in three newspapers, sparking a sharp response from readers in other communities.

John Phillips of Glenn Dale told the crowd of about 100 that he moved from Bladensburg after 14 years there to get away from "the element.'' He warned, "You're going to get an element you don't want." And he noted that crimes committed by students often go underreported.

The man was quoted in two newspapers -- including the Washington Post -- as saying he did not want a "criminal element" coming to Bowie, further fueling emotions. Phillips, contacted by telephone Monday, declined to comment.

When reminded of Phillips' remarks, Bladensburg school board member Cathy Smith, who attended the meeting, said the comment was "racist."

"Bladensburg is lower income and African-American, and a lot of people equate that with crime and violence," Smith said.

While she said she believes the statement is not representative of the Bowie community, "Unfortunately, people applauded.''

Still, Smith said, "I thought the parents at the meeting raised a lot of good issues. The concerns people raised had merit and deserve to be looked at.'' Just as it is unfair to make a blanket statement about Bladensburg, Smith said it would be unfair to characterize the entire city of Bowie as racist.

The Bowie Star published an editorial last week chastising "Bowie's leadership" for not challenging Phillips' remarks. And a cartoon in another newspaper poked fun at the flap.

After a week of taking hits on the issue, Aleshire wants to set the record straight. "This is getting a little bit out of proportion," he said. "We need to dispel this somehow.''

First of all, Phillips is not from Bowie, he said. He doesn't have any children in Bowie schools, and he is not represented by the council member who called the meeting, Paul Ellington (Dist.3). "Why was he here in the first place?"

Furthermore, the councilman said Bowie is not the first community to object to hosting Bladensburg students. In fact, a plan to send the students to the old Northwestern High School building was rejected by the Hyattsville City Council out of concern that the students would be too close to the new Northwestern High School. Bowie residents raised a similar argument at the July meeting.

They also said other options should be considered before relocating the students to the Belair Annex building in Bowie, because the city needs the extra space to relieve overcrowded schools.

Others worried about the impact that two high schools could have on parking and traffic.

Still others were concerned about fights, crime, litter and the tacky appearance of portable units that will be needed to house all the Bladensburg students.

Mayor Fred Robinson plans to meet with Prince George's County Schools Superintendent Iris Metts on Wednesday to continue discussions about the plan.

He has suggested several alternatives for the Bladensburg students, including space at the University of Maryland and the new Flowers High School.

"If there is an alternative, then I will explore it, and I don't think I should be called a bigot for that,'' Robinson said.

He stressed the fact that Bladensburg badly needed a new school, but he said Bowie should get first dibs on the Belair building. "Our initial concern is that we have been seeking access to the annex as a second building for a middle school.''

Councilman Leo Green said the focus on Phillips skews the issue. "Our schools are overcrowded, that's really the issue here -- not 'element.' Calling Phillips' remarks "inappropriate rhetoric," Green said, "I don't think it reflects our community. We're a very open community."

Bladensburg Mayor David Harrington, who has been following the headlines about the issue and was unable to attend the July meeting, said, "I was taken aback by reports that I heard about the students of Bladensburg coming to Bowie. If this represents Bowie, I am very concerned.''

But Harrington, who described his relationship with city officials as "good," said he did not want to overreact and he did not think the viewpoint of one man represented Bowie.

He stressed that his high school is a typical high school with students from Seat Pleasant, Glenarden and Landover Hills as well as Bladensburg: "These students are not that negative 'element,' these are students who want a good education. To stereotype these students is totally offensive.''

He added, "If the opposition is based on overcrowding, then I would support the superintendent sitting down with the [Bowie] leadership to resolve that. If the opposition is based on fear of Bladensburg students, I would totally reject that fear.''

Bladensburg High School Principal David Stofa said his school is as safe as any school but that some people have "bad information" about the Bladensburg community. "When it's all said and done," he said he believed Bowie would welcome Bladensburg students.

Bowie High School Principal Suzanne Maxey has said the relocation plan can work.

Robinson said people outside the community should understand Bowie's frustration level. "Sometimes it feels like people are piling on us,'' he said.

For example, he said the city literally feels dumped on because the county wants to put a trash transfer site in Bowie, which has long been the home of the Sandy Hill landfill. He said the county gives Bowie little in return for bearing such burdens.

Bowie has had to come up with its own money to fund large projects, he said.

A new gymnasium, senior center and performing arts center were all done without financial help from the county.

The city contributed $7 million to the park and planning fund but has no indoor pools or large regional parks to show for it. And because of the structure of police service --high-crime areas get priority -- Robinson said Bowie residents get inadequate police patrol but are double taxed to have "contract officers" who fill in the gaps.

Making matters worse, Robinson said Metts recently announced cuts in local school funding, and Bowie schools would be hardest hit. He said the schools should have been given more notice on this issue, as well as the Bladensburg issue.

"All I want to do is make sure Bowie gets into the decision-making process," the mayor said. "I don't think it's inherently evil for me to think this way.''