Updated at 5:45 p.m. – Groundbreaking on a new middle school in a former Kensington park could start as soon as next month after the Board of Education approves a $48 million construction contract for the project Thursday.
The school, known as Bethesda-Chevy Chase Middle School #2 because it has yet to be named, has long drawn opposition from neighbors around the Rock Creek Hills Local Park on Saul Road.
After the board approves the construction contract and general contractor Dustin Construction obtains all required permits, the project could start as early as mid-September, Montgomery County Public Schools spokesperson Gboyinde Onijala said Monday.
Needing a second middle school to accommodate overcrowding in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School cluster, MCPS chose to reclaim the 13-acre park site in 2013 from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The decision was made after a search committee of residents, school officials and other community leaders recommended it over other possible sites.
In a hearing in front of the Planning Board in March, staff from MCPS and the Planning Department argued over the best design for the school.
It will be built on a challenging site, hilly enough to require retaining walls ranging from two to 15 feet in height. MCPS Construction Director Craig Shuman has said fitting the four-story building with room for 944 students on the site will be like “fitting 10 pounds of sugar in a 5-pound sack.”
The Planning Board doesn’t have the legal authority to require changes to the school’s design. Still, Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson and County Council Education Committee Chairman Craig Rice wrote a letter to the Board of Education late last month claiming the design process “didn’t serve the public or our respective agencies very well,” and that “the final design is disappointing.”
The letter included five specific examples of changes that would’ve improved the design, including painting basketball courts onto the bus loading area to reduce the amount of impervious surface on the site.
Planning Department staff suggested 20 on-street parking spaces on the northern side of Saul Road to reduce land needed for parking and save trees. Planning staff also suggested making the school’s music room and dining hall 15 feet tall instead of 20 feet tall, a move that could’ve minimized the retaining walls outside of the room.
On Monday, BOE President Patricia O'Neill penned a response letter to Rice and Anderson that said MCPS staff did take Planning Department concerns seriously, integrated some of those concerns in a modified design and couldn't integrate all of the changes because of safety and security concerns. MCPS also reiterated that its chosen design actually saves more trees and existing forest than what planners suggested.
O'Neill also said Anderson didn't attend an April meeting on the school design set up by Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers.
"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.”
In early July, MCPS Director of Facilities Management James Song told Bethesda Beat the school system had resolved the design issues brought up by Planning Department staff.
A group of neighbors has been pressing MCPS staff to make design changes, saying the retaining walls and school entrances will be unsafe for students.
The Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster currently has only one middle school, Westland on Massachusetts Avenue, and is dealing with several elementary schools that must accommodate sixth-graders— students who typically attend middle schools.
Grade six students from Chevy Chase and North Chevy Chase elementary schools would be reassigned to the new middle school. A boundary study to figure out which other students would attend the school is set to start in spring 2016.
The construction contract the board is expected to approve Thursday lays out how much money is needed for each subcontractor. The school is expected to be completed in time for the start of the 2017-2018 school year.