In what has become a familiar scene in the last few months, community members and Montgomery County Schools officials clashed Feb. 8 at a meeting to discuss plans for the Seven Locks replacement school on Kendale Road. But with the preliminary design process at its end, the next time planners and opponents of the school are likely to meet is in front of the Montgomery County School Board.
The board will vote March 8 on whether to approve preliminary design plans for the school, which is scheduled to open in September, 2007. If the board approves the design as expected, it will move on to a review by the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission and then to a design development stage in which the structural, mechanical, and architectural elements of the design, as well as the cost, are worked out in much greater detail. Planners hope to take bids on construction in November of this year.
“We’re still at the beginning of this process and there’s still a long way to go,” said facilities designer Jim Tokar of Montgomery County Public Schools.
That may be of some comfort to opponents who see the construction of the Kendale school as being linked to the eventual demise of Seven Locks Elementary. The County Council last year identified Seven Locks as a potential site for the construction of affordable housing.
“Time is an ally, from the perspective of the community because other things change,” said School Board member Steve Abrams (District 2), who attended the meeting.
“It’s still not clear how much money’s going to be available to start this project next year,” he said, because the MCPS does not know how much funding it will receive from the state. And even after the new school is built and occupied, it could take time for the Board of Education to decide whether or not the Seven Locks site should be declared surplus and turned over to the county for other uses.
“Even if you assume that the new school goes through, it’s still not clear that surplussing issue is one that we would be taking up so quickly. And I would certainly raise concerns about surplussing.”
THE SEVENTH MEETING of the Facilities Advisory Committee — convened in October to gather community input on design plans for the new school — was scheduled Jan. 6 during what had been planned as the final advisory committee meeting, because community members said they had not an adequate opportunities to provide input.
Following a presentation by architect Mike Poness, who explained changes to his design since the last meeting, Montgomery County Public Schools officials took questions from the community. In addition to facilities designer Jim Tokar and planner Adrienne Karamihas, who have been present for all of the meetings, MCPS leaders like Abrams, Department of Facilities Management director Richard Hawes, and Department of Planning & Capital Programs director Joe Lavorgna were present.
Some of the community objections focused on elements of the Kendale design — particularly that the plan does not provide enough parking or field space, that it will not allow students to walk to school, and that 740-person capacity of the proposed school is too great for the site to accommodate. MCPS facilities guidelines call for 12 acres of land for new elementary schools. The Kendale site offers 10.4 usable acres.
But the majority of concerns were aimed not at specific aspects of the design but on a larger process that community members say has left them out and will eliminate a cherished community resource — Seven Locks — while replacing it with what some parents are calling a “mega-school” on Kendale.
JUST A FORMALITY? One proponent of that view was Janet Battista, a neighbor and former Seven Locks parent.
“Having had this meeting here tonight, can you then check off on your list of procedures that you need to take in order to continue down the road, that you have now gotten the final bit of community input that you require in order to seal this plan as your plan?” Battista asked Hawes. “Are we now participating in your plan as a community input by showing up here and asking questions about your architectural plan, when — although that is a concern to some people here — the real concern is the process by which we got here?”
“I’m not sure that anything that’s been said here tonight will change anything that we’ve got up there on the board. I mean I don’t consider that input,” she said.
Poness asserted that for those who have attended all of the meetings, the advisory committee process has in fact been interactive.
“A lot of you are thinking, this is the first time you’ve seen this plan. But this plan started off as six boards. We had the building over here, we had the building here, we had the building here,” he said indicating different areas of the site on a design board. “As a matter of fact I believe three of the plans were ruled out, without further consideration, by the group.”
“It’s been a process and in that process, you can call it a vote, you can call it a census taking, you can call it a straw poll, but the committee has been really generating” substantive changes, he said.
Hawes said repeatedly that the MCPS’s task was to design a school that meets the programmatic specifications set forth by MCPS planning documents.
A heated debate about whether the committee should vote on the design proposal resurfaced following extensive discussion of that question at the Jan. 6 meeting.
“If you feel strongly about taking a vote you should take a vote, because what you tell us is what we’re going to present to the Board of Education” Hawes said. “Now if you feel we haven’t met some standard that you’ve established for this school, then that’s what the vote will tell us. … But … the standards that you think should be met for this school may not be something we feel is par to the programmatic standards, the programmatic specifications.”
Winston Churchill High School cluster coordinator Janis Sartucci did eventually orchestrate several votes at the January meeting, but by the time they took place many people had left. With no agreement even on who was a member of the Facilities Advisory Committee, the votes had the tenor of a symbolic gesture rather than a firm statement.
Sartucci wanted the group to vote on a list of objectives that had been set forth at the first advisory committee meeting in October, but no one could decide whether they should be voted on together or separately.
“What about meeting the program standards for the school?” Hawes asked.
Sartucci replied, “That wasn’t our goal.”
“Well it was very clearly our goal to meet the program standards,” said Hawes, adding, “We’re here to get your input. We’re not here to gain your approval.”
NO DECISION ON SEVEN LOCKS
MCPS representatives maintained a long-time position that the decision to build the Kendale school is not linked to the possibility of surplussing Seven Locks
“We can deal with facts or we can deal with conjecture. Until the superintendent recommends, and the board decides, this school site stays in the MCPS system,” Hawes said. “It has no relationship whatsoever to this site.”
But some, including members of the Save Seven Locks coalition, objected.
“We all know it’s a bunch of bull,” said David Tiktinsky, who has been a vocal opponent of the Kendale plans. “You can say whatever you want, we know the board of education has to do their own thing. You can try to talk around what I’m saying but the reality is it’s on the county council’s list, it’s been targeted.”
“My suspicion is that there are some forces at work that would like to see a major public initiative towards affordable housing. And you have a lot of politicians running for office in 2006,” Abrams said in an interview. But he said he was not aware of any official or unofficial plans for Seven Locks, and that the school board is unlikely to even address the issue until summer or later.
Abrams did acknowledge some of the concerns raised by the community about the Kendale school itself.
“I am concerned on the road capacity issue,” he said, and about the size. “It may well be a legitimate 500 person site or 400 person site, but the question that [the community] is raising is, ‘Is it a legitimate 740-person site?’”