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School Construction Plan Stirs Controversies

Kendale boundary study slated for spring; Churchill dropped from new high school planning.

Montgomery County Public Schools are overcrowded, and they school system is relying on 719 relocatable classrooms this year, including 72 in the three school clusters serving Potomac.

But building new schools isn’t always the solution that parents would prefer.

Two planned schools — a new elementary school on Kendale Road that will begin construction early next year and a proposed high school to relieve overcongestion in the central county — are causing controversy among Potomac parents.

Both projects came into sharper focus Oct. 28 when School Superintendent Jerry Weast released his recommended fiscal year 2007 capital budget and fiscal years 2007-2012 capital improvements program (CIP).

The documents outline school capacities and enrollment projections through 2020 and establish priorities and funding requests for school construction, modernization and additions for the next six years.

WEAST SAID in the document that MCPS hopes to take advantage of a leveling off in enrollment to reduce the need for portable classrooms.

“If we do not address the need for additional school capacity in this capital program, these 'temporary' classrooms may become permanent fixtures at our schools,” he said in a statement.

Though most schools have more students than their designated capacities and most have become more overcrowded in recent years, planners expect to see some reprieve during the next six years.

That’s because the number of births in the county rose dramatically during the 1980s but then declined steadily from 12,733 in 1990 to 11,812 in 1997. Children born in 1997 will reach high school in 2011.

Planners predict that Winston Churchill High School, which is currently over-enrolled by 142 students, will have 41 open spaces in the 2010-2011 school year, and other schools, particularly in the Churchill cluster, have similar predicted declines.

But the relief is only temporary. By 1999, births had returned to their 1990 level and have continued to increase, hitting an all-time high of 13,546 in 2004.

”The kids from the early 2000s don’t start reaching elementary school until 2007, 2008,” said Richard Hawes, director of the department of facilities management at MCPS. “That’s going to be a new bubble that comes through. But that bubble’s not going to hit the high school grades for 15 years.”

Demographic projections fuel Hawes’ work planning for school construction, but they do little to address the concerns of parents and community members who think the school system’s plans are misguided.

MEMBERS OF the Seven Locks Elementary School community have spent more than a year protesting MCPS’ plan to build a “Seven Locks Elementary School Replacement Facility” on Kendale Road in Potomac.

The new elementary school is fully funded and set to be completed in August of 2007.

Opponents of the school fear that it will mean the eventual demise of Seven Locks, perhaps to be replaced by affordable housing. They have contended that building an addition on Seven Locks — as originally planned — or redirecting the funds to the badly overcrowded Potomac Elementary would be more cost-effective.

“Why is the superintendent saying he’s so concerned about having 17,000 students in portables when he’s still saying he’s planning to close a perfectly good school at Seven Locks?” said Sandy Vogelgesang, a leader of the Save Seven Locks Coalition.

She said that the Kendale project has been marred by cost overruns before even reaching construction and that adding on to Seven Locks would have saved the county $10 million.

But Kendale is on schedule to proceed: MCPS will take construction bids in January and site clearing could begin in February. The real acrimony may come beginning in the spring, when MCPS initiates a boundary study to determine who will go to the new school, a long-looming eventuality codified in the new CIP proposal.

“This one probably will have some level of tension to it because of the whole Seven Locks issue,” Hawes said. “It would be pretty naive of us to believe that this is going to go off without it.”

But he added that boundary studies are a meticulous process that include an advisory committee of parents, teachers, and administrators, which makes recommendations to the Superintendent, followed by public hearings leading to a Board of Education vote.

Maintaining a long-standing position, Hawes said that any consideration of Seven Locks’ future would not come until after the Kendale school has been occupied and that it could remain a school or be used for another educational purpose. A recommendation to give up the land would have to come from the superintendent, go through public hearings, and pass the County Council.

“You’re several years down the road before any discussion or any recommendation coming from the Superintendent,” he said.

HAWES IS USED to fielding the Seven Locks question. At Wayside Elementary School Nov. 3, Community Superintendent Mark Kelsch got to practice a similar skill.

The Wayside PTA had invited Kelsch following weeks of speculation among Churchill area parents that a proposed mid-county high school could take students out of their current schools without warning and against their wills.

“I’ve talked to a lot of families the last two to three weeks — moms calling, dads calling, parents calling saying, ‘Are you going to take my child out of Churchill district?’ And we have no plans to do that,” Kelsch said to more than 75 parents at the meeting.

Their fears were fueled in part by an e-mail sent on the Churchill PTA e-mail list entitled “URGENT Imminent threat of REASSIGNMENT OF YOUR HOME from Churchill to a New, Unknown High School.”

MCPS officials called the e-mail alarmism. The new high school is so far only a concept discussed by an advisory group, they said. It has no land and no funding.

“This new school we’re talking about we don’t even have any land yet. We don’t have anything we can even call a study. Before you start a study in the state of Maryland, you have to have a piece of land to start the study. Because we have to see if its feasible to build on that piece of land,” Kelsch said at the meeting.

The county has a tentative offer to build the new school on 35 acres in Gaithersburg that would be donated by the developers of the Crown Farm property there, but Kelsch said that as of now, “We don’t know if it’s going to be shopping center or a school.”

And while the CIP released Oct. 28 did expand on the plans for a new high school, it actually dropped Churchill from the list of schools being factored into the planning.

“We don’t think Churchill is going to need anything but their own boundaries which they’re in now and they’ll be pretty well set for at least the next six years, and we think it’ll go beyond that,” Kelsch said. “I think we’d do anything in the world to avoid a boundary study in the Churchill district.”

That comment received brief applause.