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Parents 'Dismayed' at School Board

Bells Mill takes the stage at Board of Education hearing on elementary school overcrowding.

Outside Montgomery County Public Schools headquarters, Seven Locks Elementary School parents and children marched with signs and chanted “Save Seven Locks … Keep it, rebuild it: Hear what the people say.”

The May 1 demonstration was cheerful and respectful—children far outnumbered parents and the group of more than 75 moved aside as Board of Education members arrived in their cars.

Inside the building, where the Board was again taking public testimony on the future of elementary schools in the Potomac area, the nearly-unanimous message of more than 60 speakers was the same, but marked by distrust toward the Board and dismay at the capacity relief options it chose last week.

One option is to build a 640-student school on Kendale Road and close Seven Locks Elementary School, which only one speaker at the hearing supported. The other is to close Seven Locks and redistribute its students among four other elementaries, which no speaker at the hearing supported.

Seven Locks parent Scott Langerman was testifying to the board for the third time.

“The first two times I appeared before you I did so thinking that perhaps your conclusions were not predetermined, that perhaps an appeal to logic, reason and overwhelming community preference could hold sway,” he said. “Your latest actions, however suggest that I was a fool for thinking that.”

“The threat to close Seven Locks is astonishing,” said Diana Conway, a Potomac Elementary School PTA member. “It is also a shot across the bow of all communities in the county: Yield to the Board of Education or we will shut down your schools and add to your portables and crowding.”

One speaker supported building a school on Kendale Road.

"There is most definitely support for building a school on Kendale Road," said Heidi Dubin, who withdrew her children from Potomac Elementary said. "Those opinions expressed as opinions of the PTA are, in reality, the opinions of very few people."

OVER THE past four years, the Board has juggled dozens of options for relieving overcrowding in the elementary schools that feed into Winston Churchill High School.

In 2001 the county scrapped a planned addition at Potomac Elementary, then the most overcrowded school in the Churchill cluster.

In February 2004, the Board cancelled a planned addition and modernization at Seven Lock Elementary School and the County Council agreed to shift the Seven Locks funds to build a new, larger school on an MCPS-owned property one mile west on Kendale Road.

The Seven Locks PTA opposed the change and the surrounding community has rallied against building on Kendale ever since, citing cost and environmental concerns. They were propped up by a February 2006 report by the Montgomery County Inspector General that found that MCPS had misrepresented cost data 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.

The report caused the County Council to withdraw its support for Kendale and create a task force to begin anew at analyzing elementary school options for the cluster.

The task force found that Kendale is the least expensive option.

The Council will take public testimony May 2, after the Almanac's press time and expects to choose one of the construction options before the end of budget deliberations this month.

PARENTS ARE ANGRY that more than five years after discussions on crowding began, the Board and Council are exactly where they began.

At the same time, the overcrowding problem in the Churchill cluster has changed during that time. Enrollment at Potomac Elementary has declined and Bells Mill Elementary is now more than 50 percent over its programmed capacity, by far the most in the cluster.

Potomac is still 44 students—about 10 percent—over capacity.

Bells Mill parents have mostly stayed out of the Kendale-Seven Locks debate and instead asked the county to speed up plans for a renovation at Bells Mill.

Frustrations there have boiled over this school year after numerous students and teachers at Bells Mill were sickened by mold from working in contaminated portable classrooms.

Dozens of Bells Mill parents decried the Board May 1 for ignoring their school in the current discussion.

“We feel as though we have been overlooked, and although you are in a quandary with two other schools in our cluster ... We can wait no longer for your attention,” said Laurie Halverson, president-elect of the Bells Mill PTA in testimony to the Board. She said that the promise of two new portable classrooms “covers a dent when your school has really been totaled.”

BELLS MILL PARENTS said that they were flexible about what solution they would accept for their school, but that they need a solution immediately.

Bells Mill and Seven Locks parents appeared to be in an uneasy stalemate May 1.

They unanimously condemned the School Board’s options, but otherwise had disparate agendas, with both groups seeking attention and funding from the county.

“I am sickened by the tactics that have been used to pit one school against another in an attempt to divide and conquer the members of the Churchill Cluster,” said Seven Locks parent Kim Abod in testimony.

One suggestion that came from several Bells Mill parents: build the controversial Kendale School—a design meant to be adaptable to other sites—on Bells Mill’s land.