Saturday, July 4, 2009

Blair G. Ewing - Washington Post Editorial

In Montgomery County, where civic activism is intense, he went at it full tilt.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

"WOE BE THE person who underestimates Blair Ewing," said his Montgomery County Council colleague Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) eight years ago in a Post interview. "Blair doesn't get out there and worry about whether he is going to win. If he thinks something is right, he's going to pursue it whether he has the votes or not." On the council and during an extraordinary 22 years on the county Board of Education, Blair G. Ewing often didn't have those votes. But Mr. Ewing, who died in Rockville on Monday at the age of 75, was an ardent champion of much that would come to pass in the county.

From the moment he moved from Binghamton, N.Y., to Silver Spring in 1967 to become a program analyst and planning and management specialist for a series of federal agencies, Mr. Ewing immersed himself in the civic currents of Montgomery, focusing on growth and education policies. When he won a seat on the school board in 1976, the group was dominated by members who shared his strong belief in racial integration.

But the board makeup soon changed; Mr. Ewing became a lone wolf opposing efforts to undo an integration plan to bus white students from mostly affluent households in Chevy Chase to heavily black Rosemary Hills Elementary School in Silver Spring. In 1981, over his impassioned objections, the board voted to close Rosemary Hills. Mr. Ewing let fly: "Frankly, this board doesn't give a damn about minorities. . . . It is clear to me that the majority members of the board appeal, in steadily less subtle ways, to the worst instincts of some of their fellow citizens."

A year later, the State Board of Education overturned the county's decision as "arbitrary and unreasonable" and ordered the school to remain open. Voters, too, got the message and tossed out the errant members; in two years, Rosemary Hills achieved record enrollment and national recognition as a model of integration.

Mr. Ewing's unflagging -- and all too frequently uncompromising -- advocacy of generous spending for school improvements sat well with parents in the years of flush budgets and rising enrollments and earned him hero status among the unions. But when lean years stirred voter resistance to rising taxes, he simply tuned out the opposition and pressed on for more funding, citing the needs of a system serving rising numbers of poor, special education and non-English-speaking students. However worthy Mr. Ewing's spending proposals may have been, fiscal realists had to curb or reject many of them, and his influence waned.

Elected to the council in 1998, Mr. Ewing led a managed-growth faction that fought road construction, including the desperately needed intercounty connector that is only now materializing. After losing a reelection bid in 2002, he came out of retirement two years ago when Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) appointed him to the State Board of Education, where he served until his death.

Behind his relentless, sometimes caustic style, Blair Ewing had a soft, caring side and a heartfelt desire to make Montgomery County an attractive home for all its people. That's a cause he clearly helped to advance.

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