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Deja Vu, Again

Board of Education and County Council remain at odds on unpopular Kendale construction plan.

Parents at at least three Potomac elementary schools again face an uncertain future after the Montgomery County Board of Education resurrected an all-but-dead plan to build a school on Kendale Road.

“The community is stunned. We can’t imagine why they did this. It’s inconceivable,” said Sandy Vogelgesang, leader of Save Seven Locks, a coalition of civic groups that has battled MCPS over its plans to build a school on Kendale to replace Seven Locks Elementary School.

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast recommended April 20 that the Board of Education support building on Kendale following the release of a draft working group report that identified Kendale as the least costly option for expanding elementary school capacity in the Winston Churchill High School cluster.

Weast’s proposal included a reduction in the capacity of the proposed school from 740 to 640 students “to address community concerns.”

“It saves time and money,” he said. “The financial savings are not insignificant.”

The Board voted to hold a May 1 public hearing on Weast’s recommendation and another option where Seven Locks would be closed and no new school would be built.

“THEY’RE JUST playing games. It’s not changing anything on the ground [at the County Council],” Council Spokesman Patrick Lacefield said of the Board action. “Ultimately we sign the checks. … There are not the votes on the Council for Kendale and there’s not the votes on the council to close Seven Locks and disperse other places.”

Lacefield observed that “When the inspector general said there were these less expensive options, [the Board] said, ‘Oh, well money isn’t everything,’” and that now it underscoring the apparent cost savings associated with Kendale.

The majority of Potomac parents oppose building any school on the Kendale Road site (off Bradley Boulevard near River Road). More than 60 community members were unanimous in opposing Kendale at two public hearings last month. They also opposed any scenario that could close nearby Seven Locks Elementary School.

“It was the sense of at least those people who testified that Seven Locks should be built on Seven Locks,” Weast said at the April 20 Board meeting. Still, he said, building on Kendale instead is the best option.

Vogelgesang`s group and other Kendale opponents are furious at what they see as the latest in a string of reversals that stretches back to at least February 2004 when MCPS abandoned an approved renovation project at Seven Locks in favor of a “replacement school” on Kendale.

OPPONENTS protested at public meetings and even mounted legal challenges to the Kendale plan but it appeared poised to go forward anyway as recently as January. MCPS approved a construction bid in December of last year.

But in February a Montgomery County Office of Inspector General report that found that MCPS had misrepresented cost data and community sentiment in advocating for the Kendale school and that a cheaper option—building a new school on the current Seven Locks site—had been artificially ruled out.

That led to the March public hearings and a swift change in position by a majority of the County Council. The Council agreed—without an official vote—that it would no longer consider funding Kendale in light of environmental, traffic and cost concerns, along with the overwhelming community opposition. The Council and Board agreed to establish a joint staff working group to once again vet options for elementary school expansion in Potomac.

“The Council had offered a face-saving solution and the thanks they got for that face-saving gesture was the two options that were the most unacceptable,” Vogelgesang said.

Board Member Valerie Ervin, who has broken ranks with the Board majority, seemed to agree with that at the April 20 meeting.

“Was this a monkey court that we had the County Council put together?” she asked. “We’re setting up the public once again to wait while we monkey around with the process to get in the end up with what it appeared that we wanted in the first place. … I think this is such a ridiculous set-up of people in our community.”

THE WORKING group draft report showed that building a 640-capacity school on Kendale would cost $2.6 million less than building the same size school at the current Seven Locks site and could be completed a year sooner.

Working group members stand by the data, but community members are skeptical. The school project costs have been a moving target, they say, sometimes including gyms and sometimes excluding them, for example, without any indication.

The working group report does not include past expenditures, such as $800,000 architectural design contract, in the Kendale cost figures, said Ken Hartman, a member of the group an an aide to County Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1).

The inspector general’s report that found building on Seven Locks to be the cheapest option was based on

MCPS data.

At the April 20 meeting, Board member Steven Abrams

admonished the inspector general for what he has repeatedly described as wrongly-motivated and incompetent work.

County Councilmember Michael Subin said effectively the same thing in an April 11 memo in which he said that he would not seek a peer review of the inspector general only to avoid prolonging a fight that is detrimental to school children. But in the future, he said, “I will not hesitate to do whatever is necessary to prevent any power grabs in any part of government.”

The April 20 meeting in Rockville itself sometimes escalated to a shouting match.

“I’m uncomfortable with how antagonistic this entire process is becoming and it’s becoming kind of a circus,” said Sebastian Johnson, the Board’s 17-year-old student member. “There is a way that we can do this and work with the County Council.”

The Council will have a public hearing May 2 at 7:30 p.m. It will act on specific Kendale and Seven Locks proposals May 4 and on the entire MCPS capital budget May 11.