The people have spoken, but will the Board of Education listen?
More than 100 people came to a public hearing on March 3, most of them to oppose the idea of declaring school sites as surplus.
The hearing had initially been scheduled to gain input on a boundary shift about Banneker and Briggs Chaney middle schools in Silver Spring, but more than three-fourths of the speakers came to talk about the currently unused school sites.
Only one, Daniel Sachs of the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County, came to speak in favor of turning the property over to the county for affordable housing. The Housing Opportunities Commission administers the county’s affordable housing program.
Sachs explained the benefits of affordable housing to the county as a whole, and to the school system in particular.
“Many [Housing Opportunities Commission] rental properties are occupied by persons at the lower rungs of the schools’ salary structure: its beginning teachers, its classroom aides, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians,” Sachs said.
Sachs also floated the possibility of paying the school system for the land in a profit-sharing arrangement.
“The [Housing Opportunities Commission], as another component of county government, could look favorably on sharing with MCPS some of the financial gain associated with the development of housing on these sites.”
The other speakers, parents from virtually every school in the Churchill Cluster and some from other clusters, offered not money, but incredulity. They questioned why the board would even entertain the idea of declaring with finality that any proposed school sites would never be needed.
The idea of turning the land over for affordable housing, however, did not originate with the School Board but with the county executive who asked the board to give the land up.
“We must fulfill our legal obligation and consider it,” said board member Pat O’Neill (Dist. 3). “We must have it on the table.”
The overarching theme from parents was that it would be shortsighted to declare land surplus when the future needs are unknown.
Julie Dobson, president of the Potomac Elementary PTA, gave a brief history of the expansions and modernizations of the school, which was built in 1927.
“No one thought that a school built for 65 would support 602 today,” Dobson said. “And it would be presumptuous of us to decide today that we know what the next few decades will bring.”
George Barnes, president of the West Montgomery County Citizens’ Association and a graduate of Potomac Elementary, also spoke about taking a longer view. “I can personally assure you that if anyone had asked my parents in those days [the 1950s] if they thought the county would grow to the extent which it has today, they would have been incredulous.”
Barnes also pointed out that the enrollment projections are based on current land use choices made by the County Council. Any increase in density would correspondingly increase enrollment. “Any County Council can change the zoning in any Master Plan are by a simple majority vote,” Barnes said.
“Given the current reality, the School Board has no business giving away any of its land,” said Jud Ashman of Gaithersburg. Ashman was one of two speakers from the Quince Orchard cluster who came to speak against turning the land over to the county.
“As we’ve learned in Clarksburg, Gaithersburg, and the downcounty clusters, growth is not going away, but land is,” said Jim Keenan, cluster coordinator for Quince Orchard.
Parents from the Churchill Cluster questioned the board’s analysis of enrollment figures.
The enrollment projections presented by the Board of Education show declining enrollment in the cluster, although enrollment will still be over capacity at the cluster’s two middle schools, Hoover and Cabin John, through 2020.
Churchill Cluster coordinator Janis Sartucci noted that the analysis should have taken a wider perspective.
“Note that the superintendent’s recommendation failed to bring the enrollment at Frost [middle school, in the Wootton cluster] into consideration,” Sartucci said. “That is a major omission, as Cabin John Middle School is not used exclusively by the Churchill Cluster.”
As Sartucci pointed out, students from Cabin John go to both Churchill and Wootton. She then added in enrollment projections from neighboring Pyle Middle School, in the Whitman cluster, and showed that construction of a new middle school at Brickyard could be used to allow the five schools to have enrollments of approximately 860 each. This would allow the four current schools, all of which are now over capacity, to be at or below capacity.
The schools assert that it is not cost effective to build another school. If additional capacity is needed, said Joe Lavorgna, director of the Department of Planning and Capital Programming for the school system, there is room for additions to both Hoover and Cabin John.