School site selection process to be reviewed
School officials to study Kensington park for site of middle school
The school system will likely review its procedure for choosing where to build schools after residents and parks officials said the process wrongly equates parks with vacant property.
The school board Thursday abandoned a recommendation that a middle school be built in Rosemary Hills/Lyttonsville Park in Silver Spring and approved a feasibility study for a park in Kensington in a 6-1 vote, with member Michael A. Durso opposed. The new site, Rock Creek Hills Park, at 3701 Saul Road in Kensington, was tapped by the school system's site selection committee as the second-best option and was included in the resolution that came to the board Thursday as an alternate.
But the location change does not address larger issues, according to Caren Madsen, chair of Conservation Montgomery, an organization that wrote a letter opposed to putting a school at the Rosemary Hills park.
"The bigger picture is parks are still in jeopardy," Madsen said. "The school board made clear they still want to use public park land."
Of the 10 sites reviewed by the project's site selection committee, six were parks.
"The school system thought of park land as sort of free," said Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier, who April 27 wrote a letter to the school board deploring the use of park land for schools except on rare occasion.
The community response and especially Carrier's letter will force school officials to "rethink, definitely, when and how parks are identified as possible school sites,"?said Bruce Crispell, director of the long-range planning for the school system. He did not know what changes, if any, would be made.
"We never doubted that parks are major community assets and we don't consider them vacant land," he said. "But in built-out parts of the county, there is very scarce land period. We felt a school was a community asset."
The board's action
Both Rock Creek Hills and Rosemary Hills/Lyttonsville Park are property of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The county can reclaim the Rock Creek Hills park, which it sold to M-NCPPC in 1990, if needed for a school because it originally housed a school, Kensington Junior High. A senior housing community has since been built on part of the former junior high property, but the school's plans for a middle school would not reclaim that portion of the property, Crispell said.
Board member Patricia O'Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda distinguished the Rosemary Hills park as a site with "enormous obstacles," and said she supported the location change in an effort to move forward with an urgent project.
Durso (Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said he voted against the motion because he thought the process remained flawed, even though the feasibility study will move to a different location.
"I didn't see a lot of difference between the shift from Rosemary Hills to Rock Creek Hills," he said. "They appeared to me to have even less time to react and respond than the Rosemary Hills people."
Since the board delayed a vote on a recommended site for the school in March, Rosemary Hills and Silver Spring community groups protested the proposal, sending more than 100 emails to the school board, holding community meetings and organizing a coalition, Save Our Park, Preserve Our Communities.
About 15 people attended Thursday night's meeting wearing green shirts with "Save Our Park" on the front and "Preserve Our Communities" on the back. Some questioned the board's decision-making process and suggested the recommendation was racially and economically motivated. Rosemary Hills residents said their community members, which have a lower average income than much of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster, needs the park for recreation because many cannot afford gym memberships.
The middle school is needed to address overcrowding at Westland Middle School and to remove sixth grade from Chevy Chase and North Chevy Chase elementary schools. The boundaries and capacity of the school have not been determined, but the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area will have about 1,600 middle school-aged children once sixth grade is removed from the two elementary schools, Crispell said. Westland Middle School has a capacity of about 1,000 students, he said.
The feasibility study approved by the board launches a series of meetings planners will hold with community members to determine what features they want and those they don't want in a school. The study, which is required by the county before the school system seeks funding, will determine potential hurdles, a basic design and the project's cost.
The next board action on the project will be approval of the feasibility study, the preferred project plan and cost, expected at the end of the summer, Crispell said. The project's timeline would allow school officials to seek funding in the county's Capital Improvements Program this fall.
Rock Creek Hills responds
Rock Creek Hills residents are not necessarily opposed to the school though some residents are but are primarily upset that they were not given the same opportunity as Silver Spring residents to respond before the board's vote, said Sam Statland, the vice chair of the Rock Creek Hills Citizens' Association.
Statland said he was among the first in the community to hear the neighborhood park was considered for the middle school and got the news hours before the school board voted to move forward with a feasibility study at the park.
"We were shocked," Statland said. "We find it kind of puzzling the school board could pull a stunt like this."
The concerns circling neighborhood email listservs and groups of friends are similar to those that were raised about the Rosemary Hills park.
Rock Creek Hills park serves as a hub of recreation for children, dog walkers and residents in the abutting senior residential community, said Barbara Bent, 61, who lives near the park. The property includes soccer fields, tennis courts and a playground.
"It would be nice because the kids could walk to school, yes, except where are they going to play afterward?" Bent said.
The roads to the park do not have shoulders or sidewalks, which means children often walk in the road, which Bent said she worried could become even more dangerous with a school that brings children and cars to the area.
Correction: This story was updated to correctly identify the owner of Rock Creek Hills and Rosemary Hills / Lyttonsville parks and to correct the spelling of Caren Madsen's name.