Today’s Bethesda Magazine brings us the story of the Montgomery County Board of Education being at war with . . . well, pretty much everyone, over the construction of a new Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster middle school. On the one side, you have the Board and the MCPS bureaucracy, and on the other, a list including County Councilmembers Marc Elrich and Craig Rice, Planning Board chair Casey Anderson, the Planning Department’s staff, and residents near the proposed school.
MCPS says the new school is sorely needed to address overcrowding at Westland Middle School, the only existing middle school in the B-CC High School cluster. Building the school would also allow sixth graders currently attending area elementary schools to move on to middle schools.
But residents near the Kensington park, where a site selection committee twice recommended the school be built, have fought the project. After one neighborhood group’s legal challenge of the site selection failed, a different group of neighbors have complained in the last few months that the four-story school design isn’t safe and shouldn’t be built on the relatively small 13-acre park site.
MCPS officials have also sparred with Montgomery County Planning Department staff over the design of the school, which will be built on a hilly site that will require multiple retaining walls. Planners expressed concerns about the location of an entranceway to the site and whether too many trees will be taken down to make way for the project.
In July, Planning Board Commissioner Casey Anderson and council Education Committee Chairman Craig Rice wrote in a letter to the BOE that “the final design is disappointing” and the design process “didn’t serve the public or our respective agencies very well.”
Board President Pat O’Neill fired right back on Monday, accusing Anderson of having skipped a meeting with Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers - in April.
Board President Patricia O’Neill shot back Monday with a letter to Anderson and Rice in which she questioned why Anderson didn’t show up to an April meeting arranged by MCPS Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers to discuss the issue.
“I understand from Mr. Bowers that he worked with all parties to establish a time to meet on April 28, 2014, but when it came time to meet, Mr. Anderson did not attend the meeting,” O’Neill wrote. “This was an important meeting on an important project, and in retrospect it would have been good for Mr. Anderson to have attended this meeting, as Mr. Bowers had requested.”
Ooooookay. Sort of a “and you’re a big jerky jerk, so there” kind of response. A side note: as anyone familiar with the county’s development process can tell you, when the Planning Department staff opposes your site plan, it’s gotta be pretty damn bad. They approve just about ANYTHING.
Predictably, MCPS officials claimed to have no idea what the problem is. Pause. OK, I’ll just leave that right there.
Andrew Zuckerman, MCPS chief operating officer, told the board Thursday that he was “mystified” by some of the complaints from other agencies and “some of the email chatter that you’ve heard.”
And of course the “we’re way too far down the road to stop now” argument. Always a favorite.
James Song, MCPS director of facilities management, said Montgomery Parks has never formally presented North Chevy Chase Park as an option for the school site and that starting the feasibility study and design phase over would take three years.
MCPS has also spent $2.5 million on architecture and design work for the Rock Creek Hills Park site that could not be recouped, Song said.
The earliest the school system would be able to open a B-CC Cluster middle school on a different site would be the 2021-2022 school year, board member Phil Kauffman said.
Both of these claims are highly doubtful. Moving a school from one location to another does not take three years. And the architectural and design work can be utilized at another site as well. And just a reminder: I previously reported that Walter Johnson HS is looking for an expansion, the design work was just commissioned this year, and MCPS is rushing to get the work done to include it in this year’s CIP. So I call bullshit on the “we can’t do anything for six years” argument.
And of course there’s the predictable NIMBY cow patty being flung around.
Rafe Peterson, a PTA representative for Rosemary Hills Elementary School, criticized neighbors arguing against the design.
“The voices of the NIMBY’s should not [drown] out the thousands of parents that support this school,” Peterson wrote. “There is no deal that can be cut that would make them happy and no way to appease them other than to move to another location. In any event, when you actually count their numbers they are a small minority. Our Cluster overwhelmingly supports this school.”
Bottom line is this: the fact that this is about the BCC cluster, and the earlier story was about WJ, is not an accident. It’s become almost comical the lengths to which MCPS and the Board will go to keep up the firewall between the Bethesda/Potomac clusters and the Downcounty and Northeast Consortiums. The ultimate nightmare scenario can be summed up in three word: countywide boundary redraw. Commence freakout now.
In this regard, take a look at this list of middle schools, with current student population and capacity. There’s over 4,000 empty seats in existing middle schools, and MCPS wants to build a four story middle school with an expansion capacity of 1200 students when Westland, the sole existing BCC middle school, is only 157 students over capacity. And this new school, with potentially the third largest capacity in the county, will be on a 13 acre site in a park. Only five of 38 middle schools are on a smaller site. Not one of them has a capacity anywhere near the 1200 that the proposed new school will have.
One last point: when Pat O’Neill says this:
O’Neill pointed out that the school system already redid the site selection process once and that Rock Creek Hills Park was the choice of a group of residents, parents and county officials.
don’t buy the snake oil. I was a member of the Downcounty Comsortium base area committee back in 2003. A bunch of us suggested all kinds of things to MCPS at the outset, including but not limited to expansion of the consortium to include BCC and Walter Johnson. We were told in no uncertain teems that we were there to consider only one thing: base areas. Period. The outcome was predetermined.
Similarly, I would bet a dollar that the “site selection process” for this new school was similarly unipolar. Support Rock Creeek Park Hills, period. I would be very surprised if any other specific sites were even considered. It’s the MCPS way.