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Potomac Issues Key in Plan for School Renovations, Construction

Parents protest boundary changes and the closing of Seven Locks School.

Half of the people were wearing red and half were wearing white Nov. 10 at the Montgomery County Board of Education forum on facilities and boundaries decisions.

The red shirts voiced opposition to a possible middle school boundary change in Silver Spring and the white shirts—now a familiar sight at area civic events—read “Save Seven Locks School.”

“If you weren’t wearing a t-shirt with a message on it, you stood out,” said Winston Churchill High School cluster coordinator Janis Sartucci, who testified at the meeting.

High emotions and forceful messages are par for the course when the school board tackles capital planning and boundary issues, and this year two Potomac issues—the surplusing of school property and the future of the Chinese Immersion Program at Potomac Elementary—are at the forefront of the debate.

School Superintendent Jerry Weast released his Superintendent's FY 2006 Capital Budget and Amended FY 2005 - FY 2010 Capital Improvements Plan (CIP), Oct. 27 and the school board is set to take action on the budget and boundary recommendations at it’s meeting on Thursday, Nov. 18.

The CIP outlines plans for modernization and new construction based on current and projected capacity and enrollment and addresses planning issues, boundary changes and changes to school programs as they relate to enrollment.

The Nov. 10 hearing, which continued the following day, began with testimony from representatives of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations and various PTA cluster coordinators. Many of the speakers thanked the board for implementing modernizations in their clusters while those still awaiting work had more critical words. Concerns about high lead levels in school water, decrepit bathrooms and over-capacity schools were repeatedly voiced.

Speakers also protested that the two-week window between the release of the CIP document and the public forum was not long enough to allow many PTAs to meet to discuss the planned changes to their communities and formulate a response.

When and Where

In the Churchill cluster, modernizations are planned for Cabin John Middle School in 2011, Hoover Middle School in 2013, Bells Mill Elementary School in 2010and Beverly Farms Elementary School in 2013 with a modernization at Wayside Elementary slated to be considered in the 2007-2012 CIP.

Architectural design of a replacement for Seven Locks Elementary School to be built on Kendale Road is already funded and underway.

In the Walt Whitman High School cluster, a nine-classroom addition to Thomas Pyle Middle School is scheduled for completion in 2008 with additional planning funds approved in the 2006 budget. A gymnasium at Burning Tree Elementary School is planned for completion in August, 2007 and a modernization and new gymnasium are set for Carderock Springs Elementary School in August, 2010.

In the Thomas Wootton High School cluster, Cold Spring Elementary will have gymnasium completed in 2010, Travilah Elementary School will get a six-classroom addition in 2008 and Fallsmead Elementary will receive funds his year for a planning study to consider a classroom addition whose completion date will be determined in a future CIP, according to the CIP documents.

But long-range CIP planning is notoriously unreliable, some say. “If it’s not in the six years, forget it,” Sartucci said, and even projects planned in the current CIP that are not yet underway are “maybe, maybe not.”

“Potomac [Elementary] got an addition in 2003” according to CIP documents, she said. “Want to see it? I’ll show you where the dirt is.”

Do We Need Those School Sites?

For the opponents of a plan to surplus the current site of Seven Locks Elementary School, Thursday’s hearing was the first opportunity to voice opposition to the plan at a Board of Education hearing since MCPS initiated its plan to build a “replacement school” on Kendale Road earlier this year.

When civic groups complained that the Kendale decision process did not include adequate opportunity for community input, board members said that the CIP hearings would be a chance to do that as part of the “normal process” of facilities planning.

“Here we are in the normal process. Only problem is the schools already being designed,” Sartucci said, referring to the facilities advisory committee meetings that have been held to discuss designs of the school, which is slated to open in 2007.

The future of the Seven Locks Elementary school site is closely tied to the plans to build a school on Kendale Road, but MCPS officials say that no plans currently exist for Seven Locks and that the CIP proceedings are not determining the outcome of Seven Locks school.

“There is no plan next week on the 18th when we take action on this CIP to dispose of Seven Locks, recommend tearing it down. We can’t do it anyway. And it would not be back for two years,” said board Vice-President Patricia O’Neill

“You can’t say they’re not planning for that. This was part of the presentation they made to the County Council when the got the funding for Kendale,” Sartucci said.

“You’ve got at least 80, 100 people who gave up their Wednesday nights to come out here and say, ‘You know what we’re really mad at you for what you’ve done and how you’ve done it,’” said Seven Locks parent Jay Weinstein, referring to the group wearing white “Save Seven Locks” shirts. “That’s simply unacceptable. There are thousands more like them at home. We don’t like what the county council has done and we don’t like what the school board has done.”

“I feel like ‘Ellis’ in Wonderland when I see what you have to do in order to save a perfectly great school run by a great headmistress,” said Seven Locks parent Courtenay Ellis, prompting applause for Principal Rebecca Gordon, who was in the audience.

Some community members also testified against Weast’s recommendation in a supplement to the CIP that the school system surplus a 1.75-acre parcel of land that is part of Tilden Middle School in Rockville. The “Edson Lane” property is a forested strip of land that was conferred to the school system by a developer for future use as a second entrance to the school.

“Providing this site to the county now will demonstrate the Board of Education’s cooperation to provide an underutilized asset to the county when needed,” Weast wrote in the recommendation.

“To slice off a piece of a school field for housing is a breach of the public trust and will have a chilling effect on all future dedications of land to the public school system,” Sartucci said. “It will also pave the way for the same type of demand from the County Council at our 84 other school sites that are made up of multiple parcels.” She concluded her testimony by playing a clip of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” in which Mitchell sings: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Chinese Immersion

Another supplement to the CIP book recommends that the Chinese Immersion Program based at Potomac Elementary open a section at College Gardens Elementary in Rockville. Potomac would retain its section of the program and would regain the “boundary preference” giving the slots in the Potomac section of the program to students living within the Potomac Elementary service area before opening up any remaining seats to a county-wide lottery.

Potomac students had had exclusive access to the program from 1996 to 2003, when the Board of Education opened the program to county-wide lottery with no preferences for Potomac students except for siblings of current Chinese Immersion students and those on the waiting list.

Public testimony at the CIP hearing came mostly from out-of-boundary parents whose children had been admitted to the program at Potomac Elementary in the last two years. The parents were uniformly grateful to the board for opening up the program and in most cases argued that both sections of the program should be county wide in the new proposal. Giving Potomac students an advantage is unfair given that the program is paid for with tax dollars from all county residents, they said, and the boundary preference provision does not exist in other immersion programs in the county.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

Excerpts from community testimony on Seven Locks Elementary School:

Courtenay Ellis, Seven Locks parent

“The other issue is about common sense. … How come we’re turning three communities upside down to solve a problem that no money has been thrown out for all these years? Why to solve the [overcrowding] problem [at Potomac Elementary] are we knocking down Seven Locks school to make developers rich and then dropping a mega school at a sensitive site at Kendale and annoying them. So instead of fixing one community you turn three communities upside down”

Cyril Draffin, Deerfield/Weathered Oaks Citizens Association

“The MCPS planning that resulted in this CIP is flawed. There has been lack of transparency in how the Board of Education makes decisions and does demographic analysis, and statements by public officials have been wrong. … In 2001 and 2002 the MCPS and the Board of Education recommended the expansion and modernization of Seven Locks. … Then in early 2004 the Board of Education repudiated the planning done by the MCPS and the previous Boards of Education, and recommended Seven Locks not be expanded but instead be [replaced]. Since there has been no substantive change in the MCPS land, schools, or students in Churchill cluster in the last year, that suggests two alternatives: (1) The plans of the MCPS and the CIP are not to be trusted … and (2) Rapid change in CIP is due to political pressure from the County Executive (Doug Duncan) and others to use school property for real estate developers and not for students. If this is the case, and this ‘deal’ resulted in a rapid change in the CIP, we think each of you as the members of Board of Education are abrogating your responsibilities to students and parents of future students.”

Scott Langerman, Seven Locks parent

“My wife in I are in this for the long haul, as we’ll be Churchill Cluster parents until the year 2020.

“Some of the proponents behind a quick resolution to this debate would have us believe that what’s on the table is a straightforward choice between a brand new school and a renovated 40-year old facility. Reality, however, is much more complicated … At its core this is of course a question of what kind of building would best serve our children and their educations, and there’s reasonable room for disagreement and debate on that subject. But to limit the debate to that question alone is to misunderstand the scope of its impact. While I stand before you as a Seven Locks parent and want nothing more than what’s best for our children, factored into that determination must necessarily be questions of community, lifestyle, green space, feasibility, due process, expectations and empowerment.

“When all of these issues and more are given the weight they deserve, it’s impossible to justify the permanent closure of Seven Locks and the surplusing of its land. One need only to look at the portable classrooms in the back of so many of our elementary schools to recognize that there’s a problem out there.”

David Tiktinsky, Seven Locks parent

“[The plan to replace Seven Locks Elementary] could be called the “4 L Plan” for all the losses it creates.

“The first loss is to the Seven Locks community. Building a replacement school at Kendale Road will likely result in the Seven Locks site being surplused and replaced with a high-density, affordable housing development. The Potomac Master plan would be sacrificed by building this high density housing. The traffic impact from the additional housing units will add to gridlock in our neighborhood.

“The second loss is to the Kendale Road community. A new school will change the nature of a serene neighborhood. The site is on a very narrow, windy road which can not accommodate school buses in its present condition. The school site is also on a flood plain.

“The third loss is to the kids that will be going to the replacement school on Kendale Road. The school will be at capacity when it opens and does not include any plans for the impact of new housing at the abandoned Seven Locks site.

“The fourth loss is to Potomac Elementary school. Although their student population will decrease temporarily due to moving some of their students, the current plan does not provide one dime for needed renovations or improvements to a school badly in need of updating.”

Herb Hevermail, community member

“I’m here as a taxpayer seeking to get the most for our tax dollars with the least environmental impact. I’ve had considerable experience in the construction industry beginning in 1950. I’ve owned my own business [as a builder in six counties in Maryland, two in Virginia and the District of Columbia since 1955]. … The Kendale site has problems in terms of access and environmental impact. The access problems can be solved with plenty of money. The solution to the environmental problem is less clear but you can be sure it will be expensive. In my experience it does not make sense to tear down a 40-year-old school. The elementary school I attended in Pittsburgh is over 80-years-old and with a couple of additions is doing well. I’m willing to donate my time and expertise to save our tax dollars.”

CIP DISCLAIMER

“In order for the modernization to be completed on schedule, two critical funding sources must remain as programmed. First, the County Council must provide local funding at the levels appropriated in the FY 2005-2010 CIP, and second the State of Maryland must provide state funding at the levels projected by the County Council for the FY 2005-2010 CIP.”