The Montgomery County Board of Education cleared the way Thursday for construction of a long-planned Kensington middle school, despite opposition from some neighbors and a last-minute push from County Council member Marc Elrich to stop the project.
The board unanimously approved a $48 million construction contract for the school, set for the former Rock Creek Hills Park on Saul Road. Construction could start as soon as mid-September and the school system is targeting an August 2017 opening date.
The school, known as Bethesda-Chevy Chase Middle School #2, has been in the site selection and planning process since 2010. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) reclaimed ownership of the park in 2013 from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. It once was home to Kensington Junior High.
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 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.”
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.”
Some of that email chatter included an email from council member Marc Elrich sent to board members at 11:25 a.m. Thursday, as they were discussing the construction contract. The email, a copy of which was provided to Bethesda Beat by MCPS, urged the board not to go through with construction of the school and instead to examine building the school at the North Chevy Chase Park off Jones Bridge Road.
“What you are doing here is expensive and unnecessary given that you have better options,” Elrich wrote. “I hope the Board can go back to the drawing board and come up with an alternative that is less costly and more respectful of the community and the environment.”
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.
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.
“I’m getting emails even as we’re sitting here from council members, from their personal accounts, trying to say we should hit the pause button,” said board member Chris Barclay, referring to Elrich. “I’m trying to understand why we should. Folks are wanting to go backwards in this process.”
Rice sent the board an email registering his discomfort with the process, but advising members to move forward with the project. Council member Roger Berliner sent an email urging the board to move forward with the construction as quickly as possible.
Susie Cooper, a resident near the park who opposes the school design, asked the board in a public comment session, “Why are you trying to build the largest middle school in the community, based on attendance, on the smallest middle school site in the county?”
The school would have space for 944 students, with potential for an expansion to accommodate a total of about 1,200 students.
Song noted that there are five existing middle schools in the county that are on sites of either 10 acres or less.
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.”