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Still Roiling over Policy Changes

School Board says Thursday meeting signals outreach efforts.

If it isn’t broken, why fix it?

That was one of the prevailing questions from school community members at an evening meeting of the Montgomery County Board of Education Policy Committee April 21 to discuss proposed revisions to Board Policy FAA, which governs facilities planning and community participation.

The proposed changes have generated an outpouring of concern, particularly from the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations and the Montgomery County Civic Federation. Some community members have alleged that the proposed revisions are a veiled attempt to stifle community input in controversial school closing and boundary change issues.

But board members say that the changes really only serve to streamline the policy and bring it into line with changes in state law, and that references to community participation in the existing policy have merely been moved to a supporting regulation document under the new proposal.

The committee amended its proposed revisions at the meeting and will continue to tweak the revisions in a May 11 meeting before presenting their recommendations to the entire board, which is expected to vote on them May 23.

The meeting Thursday was evidence of the board’s responsiveness to community concerns, members said.

“We’re trying to show you that this is the process that we use to be responsive,” Policy Committee chair Sharon Cox said.

“For whatever reason there’s been a lot of mistrust over time between the superintendent and the Board of Education and the community,” said Policy Committee member Valerie Ervin, in an interview. “It was one of the reasons I ran for the Board of Education, so I could be part of the solution.”

Ervin said that members of the MCCPTA and Civic Federation raised “excellent points” at the meeting and that the committee remains open to meeting with community groups as the policy change efforts advance.

Ervin and Cox clashed briefly after Ervin was elected in November when Cox called for an ethics board review of whether Ervin had a conflict of interest in serving on the board because she is also chief of staff for County Councilmember George Levanthal (D-At Large). But Ervin, who remained silent during the policy discussion Thursday, praised Cox’s effort to hold an open, evening meeting to allow community discussion.

“That was a very gutsy move, I thought, for her,” Ervin said. “I think that the good thing that’s happening now is that there is a willingness on [Cox’s] part and on the part of the committee to slow down the process and to listen.”

COUNTY COUNCILMEMBER Marilyn Praisner (D-4) served on the Board of Education when the original Policy facilities planning policy was adopted in 1986.

The policy grew out of a contentious period in Montgomery County in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a large number of schools were closed, Praisner and others said.

“There was a lot of anger and distrust at the Board of Education,” Praisner said of the school closings period, before she was on the board. “There was at least one occasion I can recall that the community came into a meeting with one school identified for closure and an entirely different school was closed.”

Following the 1982 elections, the board renewed efforts to reach out to the community. Policy FAA was adopted in 1986 after months of hearings and roundtable discussions.

“It was all intended to have … transparency and an openness of process,” Praisner said.

PTA heads are worried about losing that openness. They have said that detailed requirements for involvement that exist only in the regulation document are not enforceable and could be changed at any time, effectively shutting the community out of facilities decisions.

“I share some of their concerns, not because I think they are attempts to streamline policy are not well founded … but I think the policy on facilities and planning is a special kind of one that they should tread very carefully,” Praisner said. "I would err on the side of including material in the policy rather than moving things to regulation.”

VICKI RAFEL was president of the MCCPTA during the development of the original policy.

“Our goal was to have a policy that lets people participate all the way along, so that there were no surprises at the last minute,” she said. “The previous policy had relatively little community input so there were a lot of surprises and a lot of anger.”

The proposed changes, Rafel said, are “potentially very damaging for community participation. Because we don’t know. … This board may not be intending to reduce participation but the next board that comes along or the next superintendent might think ‘We don’t have time to put into that or we know better so let’s just wipe out that step.’”

“If there were easy answers to all of these things, you really wouldn’t have the community feeling of ‘what are they going to do to us next?’” Rafel said. “But there aren’t easy answers.”

WHY IT MATTERS

The move to change Policy FAA, the policy that governs public involvement in planning for new and replacement schools, comes on the heels of a tumultuous year in facilities planning, one that critics of the Board or Education cite as the motivation behind the changes.

In early 2004, undeveloped school sites, including parcels on Brickyard Road and Kendale Road in Potomac and one on Edson Lane in Rockville, were identified by the County Council as possible sites for affordable housing.

The school board was moving to make decisions about the properties without following the procedures set forth by Policy FAA, said Rosanne Hurwitz, an area vice president for Montgomery County Council of PTAs and others, when parents discovered them by examining land records.

In February, the school board decided to maintain the Kendale Road site as a school site — the future home of the Seven Locks Replacement School, set to open in 2007 — while a planned renovation at Seven Locks Elementary School around the corner was scrapped.

The abrupt switch set off an ongoing controversy, with Seven Locks parents and neighboring community members angry at what they see as the planned demise of the school.

The Board of Education did not hold a single public hearing devoted to the change in plans, and Seven Locks parents and nearby community members have complained about the process.

Recently, rumors have circulated that MCPS is contemplating reclaiming and possibly surplusing a property on Brickyard Road currently operated as an organic farm.

“They haven’t indicated much of anything,” said Nick Maravell, the farmer who leases the land from MCPS. “I don’t know what they’re planning to do.”

Maravell normally renews his annual lease in March. He said that he has sent a check and other documentation required to renew the lease and that the check was cashed, but that he has received nothing back from MCPS.

Maravell said he participated in the development of the Potomac Master Plan, which identified the site for a local park.

“I don’t know what the best public use for it is, but the people here that have lived in this area would prefer to see it as a park,” he said. “And there are others that think that some day it might perhaps one day be needed for the school system as well. I don’t think there’s any outpouring of desire ... to turn it into anything at this point at time unless it’s necessary to do so.”

Asked if he had a preference for the eventual use of the land, Maravell said, “It should be turned into a park to serve the community.”

In January the Montgomery County Circuit Court ruled that the Board of Education violated its own policies in administrating the Chinese Immersion Program at Potomac Elementary. Potomac resident Amber Hsu, who says she moved into the Potomac Elementary service area specifically so her daughter could enroll in the immersion program, and several co-petitioners filed petition in Circuit Court to overturn a June 16, 2004 judgment by the Maryland State Board of Education upholding prior actions by the Montgomery County Board of Education. The Chinese immersion program had been open only to students in Potomac Elementary’s boundaries, but the Board of Education changed the program to allow students from other parts of the county to attend. The decision shut out some Potomac students. Hsu said her daughter "fell between the cracks," and was excluded from the immersion program when the Montgomery County School Board changed the program without adequate public notice, and then altered the date range for eligibility to be on the waiting list.

POLICY BFA

As possible revisions to Board of Education Policy FAA, dealing with facilities planning and community input, draw near a vote next month, the board has continued its unofficial policy audit with a proposal to change Policy BFA. Policy BFA is the policy on policy-setting. It governs how all board policies are drafted and adopted.

The proposed changes include striking language that states “state laws, bylaws of the State Board of Education and federal guidelines are, in effect, mandated policies” and taking away the requirement that committees have three members.

“Those were some very minor language tweaks,” said Valerie Ervin, a member of the Board Policy Committee. “We wordsmithed it.”

“All these policies related to other policies,” Ervin said. “They don’t just stand alone. What I’m trying to do as a new board member is understand how they’re all interrelated.”

The public comment period for policy BFA is open through May 20. The current policy and proposed revision are available on-line by visiting www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org and clicking on “policies” under “Board of Education.”

STATE LAW CHANGES

According to Joe Lavorgna, director of Planning and Capital Programs for MCPS, the changes to Policy FAA, which governs long-term facilities planning, are urgently needed to bring the board policies in line with changes in capacity ratings under state law.

“By July 1 the school system must file with the state school construction folks its Educational Facilities Master Plan. Last year when the legislature approved the school facilities act of 2004, they changed the capacity ratings, the state rating. We can not publish our master plan with the new state-rated capacities, unless the board changes it policy. If we hand them the master plan with incorrect capacities, then our request for capital improvements in the fall, they look at them and say well you don’t have an updated current capacity calculation that meets ours,” Lavorgna said a the Board of Education Policy Committee meeting April 21.

But community members pointed out that changing the capacity ratings in the policy would only require minor edits, not the large overhaul that’s being proposed.

Cox admitted when asked by a PTA member at the meeting that few of the changes are needed to conform with state law.