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Commentary: A Chance to Reexamine Brickyard School Site

— During this long, hot summer as the corn and soybeans grew and ripened as they have for over 30 years at Nick's Organic Farm, a series of events played out in the Circuit Court, at the State House in Annapolis and at the County Board of Education that have weakened plans for a soccer complex on Brickyard Road. On Aug. 12, Gov. Martin O'Malley sent a letter to County Executive Leggett and Board of Education President Shirley Brandman that begins with "I believe we are about to make a big mistake in destroying acres of productive organic farmland which could be a priceless asset to the education, health and well being of generations of Montgomery students." The letter went on to praise the vision and virtues of a Brickyard Educational Farm, already teaching school children about organic farming, looking to supply organic produce for school lunches, offering field trips and eventually a Beginning Farmer program. His eloquence about the potential of the farm was worthy of American poet and agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry who has also written in support of Educational Farm founder Sophia Maravell's proposal.

Two days later, on Aug. 14, the Circuit Court ordered a Stay of the July 24, 2012 decision by the State Board of Education to affirm a lease to the county which also Stays the March 8, 2011 decision of the local Board of Education, thus prohibiting it from carrying out its land lease agreement, dated April 19, 2011 with Montgomery County. A virtual cheer went up in the courtroom. Scores of press attended. In granting the Stay, Judge Greenberg clearly understood by his remarks and actions both the value and fragility of 30 years of organically tended soil.

On the same day, just an hour later in a nearby courtroom, another Circuit Court Judge ordered the county to turn over documents requested by the Brickyard Coalition nine months ago and already court ordered in July: Documents that had still not been produced. Hopefully, these elusive records will fill gaps in the unknown story of how such a secretive process took place without the public knowing until it was too late to alter except through the courts. How did the Montgomery County Board of Education come to think this was a good idea in the first place? And, if it was such a good idea, why was the decision about the site not played out in an open, publicly transparent process?

Just three days after the Stay, on Aug. 17, Superintendent of Schools Joshua Starr sent a harshly worded letter to farmer Nick Maravell declaring he had no right to occupy the Brickyard Road property, allowing access to the land only to harvest the existing crops and shutting off all on site farm educational activities for school children or anybody else. The odd juxtaposition of the two letters; one from a state politician passionately advocating for farm education and the other from our school superintendent putting a stop to it is indicative of the contentious nature of this long 18-month saga for the Brickyard School site, the neighborhood surrounding it, and the organic ideal in a farm the Potomac community has come to embrace. A saga that speaks again and again to the need to start over. Superintendent Starr cannot be happy having to write such a letter — a letter resulting from a decision in which he had no part. Governor O'Malley shouldn't have to plead for educational initiatives that may appear to have him meddling in local politics. But, now we have a Stay which stands until the case is heard in Circuit Court on the merits. That hearing has yet to be set. We have a moment to reflect and for all intents and purposes, the school site has reverted to the Board of Education.

A lot of money has gone into administrative and legal challenges on all sides. The School Board alone has spent over $160,000 on legal fees. Now is the right time for the Board of Education to end this situation, take back the land and start over with a transparent process to decide the best use if any, for the site. A process that includes the public and actually furthers the kind of education that aligns with State priorities, including the Agricultural Literacy Program and the Farm to School Program. Let's take seriously the requirements of “No Child Left Inside.” Let's consider something that honors the 30-year building of organic soil. And please, let's do it before any more expensive, ugly and damaging lawsuits are filed.

Ginny Barnes is Environmental Chair and President Elect of West Montgomery County Citizens Association (WMCCA), which is an organizational member of the Brickyard Coalition. She attended the meeting on Aug. 6 with Governor O'Malley and others that led to his letter supporting the Brickyard Educational Farm vision.