Churchill Sounds the Alarm

Churchill Sounds the Alarm

MCPS disputes e-mail claim that students could be re-assigned.

The e-mail that arrived in Winston Churchill High School parents’ inboxes Sunday was the kind that makes one sit up and take notice.

The 1,100-word message from the Churchill Parent, Teacher, Student Association was marked by sections in all capital letters, in bold, and both. The subject line was “URGENT Imminent threat of REASSIGNMENT OF YOUR HOME from Churchill to a New, Unknown High School.”

With Churchill ranking among the top high schools in the county — and in the country, according to a Newsweek Magazine ranking last spring — a sudden and unexpected change would be cause for more than a little concern among parents.

But Montgomery County Public Schools officials say that no such threat exists, no “new, unknown high school” exists and no one is going anywhere.

The message made reference to an MCPS proposal to build a new concept high school in the Rockville or Gaithersburg area. So far, no site, specifications or funding for such a school exists, said Brian Edwards, an MCPS spokesman.

What does exist is a work group that met from March-July to study options for the school, which would likely have about 1,500 students and open in 2011. There is also a likely site candidate: Crown Farm, next to the Washingtonian Center in Gaithersburg, which is being developed with 2,000 houses and 50,000 feet of retail space and whose developers have offered to donated about 35 acres for a school.

On Friday, schools Superintendent Jerry Weast will release his proposal for the fiscal year 2007 budget and fiscal years 2007-2012 capital improvements plan, which will provide much more information on the school proposal, Edwards said.

None of that adds up to the claims in the e-mail, Edwards said.

“There’s a lot of misinformation in that e-mail,” said Brian Edwards, an MCPS spokesman. “There’s plenty of statements in there that are just blatantly false. … It’s unfortunate that that information was sent.”

He added that the MCPS planning staff has received several phone calls from Churchill parents who were "incredulous" over the e-mail.

As an example, the e-mail says that “to assure that your elementary and middle school kids can continue to be able to attend Churchill, and if you want to maintain the property values that are generally thought to go along with being in the Churchill district (regardless of whether you have school-aged kids), rather than being reassigned to a planned new high school with no track record,” parents should immediately contact their representative on the Board of Education and County Council, as well as Weast and other school officials.

MCPS could implement the school proposal with or without a boundary study — and the accompanying public input process — the e-mail said, and the upcoming funding announcements make the possibility of involuntary reassignments an urgent matter.

“MCPS hates letter-writing campaigns and petitions, which is why these methods of public feedback have been quite effective in the past,” the e-mail advised. “When you do speak to [officials], press on, even if they tell you that this is only in the early planning stages and that no decisions are being made; they may try to make it appear that your criticism is premature and unfounded. The truth is that this plan is coming closer and closer to being given the green light, and by the time it officially is decided to build the new high school it will be much too late to do anything about it.”

The e-mail was unsigned but came through the Churchill parent teacher student association’s BLIPS e-mail list — which is used for official announcements from the PTSA. The group sends one newsletter every week and occasional special announcements through BLIPS.

Janis Sartucci, Churchill Cluster coordinator for the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations said she and Churchill PTSA president Robyn Solomon wrote a much shorter e-mail, but that the version that went out had been embellished significantly. It was not immediately clear who added to it.

“I wish the county would at least be forthcoming … then there would be less panic,” Solomon said. “They have to have some idea in mind. … [The school] is going to be something.”

Sartucci said she did have concerns related to the new school, but that much of the e-mail was premature.

Her biggest worry was that following a scaling back of Policy FAA, the school policy that governs public input, parents would be in a weaker position to voice concerns about the new school.

“There is no proposal to change boundaries,” Edwards said, and if and when there is such a proposal it will be accompanied by “a very detailed process. … There would be public hearings.”

Sartucci also worried that Churchill students could be effectively forced into other schools because of a lack of science lab space.

“From our perspective the question isn’t about the new school, it’s about what Churchill can’t do,” she said. “Kids are being turned away from AP science classes because they don’t have the facility. If you have a smart kid who does sciences, does it matter if I tell you, ‘Your new high school is X’ or if I tell you, ‘If you want your kid to take physics you’ve got to go to X’? It’s the same thing.”

“It seems to me like they want it to be an [International Baccalaureate] type program,” Solomon said. "The parents I know don’t want to deal with a concept high school” and are generally happy with the existing situation."