Less than two miles away from Seven Locks Elementary School, Bells Mill Elementary reading initiative teacher Patricia Beder conducts her first grade class in an office.
“I have 12 students and four desks. The kids work at bookshelves and on the floor with clipboards and we do the best we can,” said Beder. “We’re happy to have what we have. No windows, the ventilation’s not great, but it’s all ours, which compared to other classes that are sharing a classroom with two classes going on we appreciate.”
Seven Locks is the center of a more than three-year-old controversy that resurged last week following an Office of Inspector General report that said that Montgomery County Public Schools used misleading information in formulating plans to close the school and open a new one around the corner on Kendale Road.
Surrounding Seven Locks is a constellation of schools — Bells Mill, Potomac Elementary, Wayside Elementary and others — whose own fates are linked to the controversy.
SEVEN LOCKS was slated to receive an addition and modernization in order to relieve overcrowding at Potomac Elementary. The revamped school would take 150-200 students from Potomac in the fall of 2006. In 2004, the Board of Education switched to a plan to build on Kendale instead and consider giving up Seven Locks for affordable housing.
“We were promised, in 1999, an addition in 2001. That ... went away. Then we were to be relieved by an addition at Seven Locks in fall 2006. Then that morphed into a new school at Kendale, but not till fall 2007,” said Potomac Elementary PTA member Diana Conway, in an e-mail shared with the Almanac. “Now that's potentially derailed too.”
While Potomac Elementary was always a part of the Seven Locks dialogue, Bells Mill, which is closer, was not considered. Bells Mill has had its own modernization and addition schedule pushed back twice, and parents have taken to leading tours of the overcrowding there to capture the school system’s attention.
PTA President Richard Rosenthal’s version includes an ESOL class being taught in a closet and a music class being taught in the teachers’ lounge.
"IN ADDITION to all our problems we have three portables that are retaining moisture which is creating mold which is making the kids and staff sick,” Rosenthal said. “They had to take all three of those classes and put the kids back in the building. But there’s no space in the building. That’s why we have eight portables.”
When our modernization was supposed to be completed in '09, the County decided to postpone the addition and incorporate it into the modernization. Since that decision, the modernization has been postponed one year and, under Duncan's proposal would be postponed one additional year.
“We’ve been trying to frame it in a cluster-wide context and nobody wants to talk about that,” said Montgomery County Council of PTAs Area Vice President Rosanne Hurwitz. “It’s not just these two schools. Its really about getting all of these kids into buildings. … These kids are in third-world buildings.”
Hurwitz and others said that the parent community’s original position regarding Seven Locks and Kendale was simply that MCPS should not consider giving up any existing school land.
“This whole thing got started because they were going to give away another school site,” Hurwitz said, referring to a February 2004 memo from schools Superintendent Jerry Weast to the Board of Education stating, “I am inclined to recommend that the Seven Locks site be transferred to the county for workforce housing” if the Kendale school is built.
“We were always concerned about calling it Seven Locks ‘replacement.’ We wanted it to be called Churchill Number 6,” a temporary designation for a new, sixth elementary school in the area that feeds into Winston Churchill High School, Hurwitz said.
The Potomac Elementary PTA supports retaining Seven Locks and building a new school on Kendale Road. The Seven Locks PTA supports a one-phase modernization and addition at Seven Locks, with the school’s students using a holding school for one year. Both PTAs oppose giving up school land for housing or other non-educational purposes.
“The whole motivation has been that they want to build housing on one of these sites and they really have to take that off the table,” she said. “It is not off the table. It is specifically not off the table.”
AT A MEETING Feb. 22, MCPS officials will outline to parents a nine-month boundary study process that will determine who attends the new Kendale school. Kendale is still set to be built this year, but the construction is contingent on a $3.3 million appropriation from the County Council.
At the same time, Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1), who represents Potomac, has said he will introduce a Capital Improvements Program amendment to cancel plans to build on Kendale and instead rebuild Seven Locks. One vocal opponent of that idea has been Council Education Committee Chairman Michael Subin (D-At Large), who could not be reached for comment on this story.
Both the special appropriation and Denis’ proposed amendment would require a six vote majority of the nine-member Council. Denis said in an interview that he is worried that neither measure will be able to muster the super-majority on a divided council, leaving the Churchill cluster in continued limbo.