Board’s Order: Kendale, with a Twist

Board’s Order: Kendale, with a Twist

Council not stirred by recommendation.

The latest from the Board of Education as of May 9, 2006 on the future of elementary schools in Potomac: replace Seven Locks Elementary by building a new school on Kendale, and use Seven Locks for some other school-related purpose.

At the Board of Education May 9 there were amendments, amendments to the amendments, amid talk of “winks” and “nods” to the County Council and local communities.

The Board finally voted 5-2 for a resolution to build a 640-student school on Kendale Road in Potomac and close nearby Seven Locks Elementary School. The board reiterated the position that Kendale is the quickest and least costly option for relieving overcrowding in the five elementary schools that feed into Winston Churchill High School.

Seven Locks — which parents and neighbors have desperately lobbied to keep as an operating school — would be closed, but would not be transferred to the county for a non-school purpose such as affordable housing, as County Executive Doug Duncan (D) proposed in 2004.

It could be leased to a private school, used as administrative offices, or used on a limited basis as a “holding school,” housing students from other schools under construction.

In amendments, the Board urged the County Council to speed up a planned modernization at Bells Mill Elementary School and consider the needs of Potomac Elementary.

Board president Charles Haughey, vice president Sharon Cox and member Patricia O’Neill, Gabe Romero, and Stephen Abrams and student member Sebastian Johnson voted for the resolution as amended. Members Valerie Ervin and Nancy Navarro opposed it.

THE BOARD ACTION created confusion among other officials.

“I’m perplexed,” said County Council President George Leventhal (D-At Large). “In early March, I tried to open a dialogue with the School Board and the school system and we put together a task force that costed out eight options [for relieving overcrowding]. We had three nights of public hearings. … Now the School Board is sending us something which was not one of the eight options and on which there have been no public hearings.”

The task force options included building schools of 640 or 740 students on Kendale as well as building a 740-student school on the current site of Seven Locks Elementary, a proposal put forth by Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) that has won wide community support.

“I was not necessarily convinced as I [recently] drove through the Seven Locks and Kendale sites that we could not do something at Seven Locks to respond to the overwhelming testimony that I heard,” Navarro said at the Board meeting. “I understand that we cannot always please everybody but I feel very strongly that … we should have looked a little harder at ways to address everybody’s concerns.”

Leventhal agreed, saying, “I don’t really think the Board has made a good faith effort to work with the Council. I think the Board has insisted on its approach.”

“We have to vote. That’s what has been lacking,” he said.

ON MAY 11, the Council will vote on the Board of Education recommendation, and, if it fails, may vote on alternatives. The Council has fiscal control over the county’s Capital Improvements Program, which funds construction projects over a six-year period. It has already allocated more than $9 million for building on Kendale, but MCPS needs $3.3 million more for the project and the Council has withdrawn its support.

The Council agreed by consensus in March that it would not support building a school on Kendale Road, but did not vote on the issue. Leventhal proposed the task force in what many saw as a face-saving measure for Montgomery County Public Schools after a Montgomery County Office of Inspector General report found that the Board of Education had misrepresented cost data and artificially ruled out better options in advocating for Kendale.

“It’s almost like we’re playing some game of poker,” said Ken Hartman, an aide to Denis and member of the task force, of the Board action. “We’re trying to read the tea leaves because they don’t want to talk to us. … It sounded to me like the Board was signaling that we won't take up Seven Locks until sometime in the future and in the interim we should use some money for an accelerated Bells Mill project and Potomac would get some improvements. … It’s so vague. It’s hard for us to comment unless we know what their intent was.”

“If it’s just Kendale all over again then we’re on for a train wreck on Thursday,” Hartman added.

ABRAMS WAS THE most vocal participant in Tuesday’s meeting. He said that any resolution should clearly spell out how Bells Mill — which is 50 percent over capacity and has had children becoming sick from mold-contaminated trailers — will receive quick relief.

The penultimate version of Weast's recommendation did that, but the language was removed.

Abrams also criticized the Board for not taking a clearer position and the community for gaming the system by throwing up hurdles to an approved school plan.

“We have a credibility problem, guys. We have a credibility problem, not through our making,” Abrams said. “Part of the reason is we’re not transparent enough. … [But] this is a sophisticated community that knows how to engage in guerilla warfare and they’ve done a marvelous job of undermining our credibility.”

But the public and behind-the-scenes process that Abrams referred to has been convoluted to say the least.

The proposed solutions for relieving overcrowding at Potomac Elementary in the last five years:

* An addition and modernization at Potomac; a two-step addition then modernization at Seven Locks Elementary School;

* A one-step addition and modernization at Seven Locks; a 740-student school to replace Seven Locks on a vacant site on Kendale Road;

* A new 740-student Seven Locks rebuilt on its current site; closing Seven Locks and redistributing area students among four elementary schools;

* A 640-student Seven Locks replacement school on the Kendale site.

“This thing should have been settled long ago. It’s the Board that’s basically standing in the way of what the community and the Council want,” said Council spokesman Patrick Lacefield. “Kendale would need six votes on the Council and I’m not even sure it’s got two. Mr. Denis’ proposal would need six votes and my guess is that some variation on it has six votes.

“We’re going to approve money for a [project],” he said. “If the School Board chooses not to take money that we’ve approved to alleviate problems in the cluster … that’s going to be a hard sell to parents.”