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Gaithersburg residents object to school plans

Gaithersburg logoGAITHERSBURG — More than two dozen city residents came to City Hall Monday night to voice opposition to a proposal by Montgomery County Public Schools to construct a new elementary school on the site of Kelley Park.  Located in the Saybrooke neighborhood on the city’s east side, the park includes green space, playground and baseball diamonds which are used in the summer by the Cal Ripken Collegiate League.

School construction has long been a hot button issue in Gaithersburg, where many of the MCPS elementary schools which serve the city are operating over capacity.

Residents learned about the proposal when Council member Neil Harris publicized it on his social media and the neighborhood organizing app Nextdoor.

“I have been working behind the scenes along with my colleagues and staff and the school system to meet the need for classroom capacity in our city,” Harris said. “We need schools to alleviate both the Gaithersburg cluster and the Quince Orchard cluster. A new high school at Crown Farm has already been added to the capital improvements program, on a site that had been set aside as part of the original plan for that development some years ago.”

“MCPS agreed with the need for additional elementary school capacity and formed a group to study the Gaithersburg cluster over the past year, and concluded that the Kelley Park site was the best choice for a new school site. Unlike the Crown Farm site, which was an undeveloped green field, there was no perfect site available, and there are pros and cons for each choice. The committee decided that the site was the best choice for a number of reasons, including walkability from areas where that was a prime consideration. The very preliminary drawing we were shown of a site plan for school at that park takes away a small portion but leaves the two baseball fields and most of the other amenities intact. There would be many details needed to be worked out regarding use of that site if that is the final direction that all parties agreed to take.” Harris added. “Once the committee made a recommendation, it went to the school superintendent, who has concurred. The next step is for it to go to the school board itself, and then it would come back to the city since we own the land. The school system’s public process begins at this time, which is why we share the information as soon as we learned of the recommendation from the committee.”

Saybrooke residents expressed concern about the effects the school’s construction would have on quality of life, student safety and property values of homes that about Kelley Park, in addition to skepticism about whether the new school would serve their area, given their past experience with the construction of a middle school on Saybrooke Oak Boulevard

“I campaigned for City Council last year calling on MCPS to build a new school on the east side of Gaithersburg,” said Jim McNulty, president of the Saybrooke Homeowners Association and chair of Gaithersburg’s Olde Towne Advisory Committee. “However, many of the residents of Saybrooke are quite concerned about MCPS building a second school on our boundary, especially after our neighborhood was excluded from the boundaries of Forest Oak Middle School when it was built in our neighborhood in 1996. Personally, I have asked both the City of Gaithersburg and the Board of Education to guarantee that surrounding neighborhoods would attend the school before the City commits to providing the land, so that neighboring communities know whether their children would be able to attend the school. To date, MCPS has only stated that their policy is to conduct a boundary study one year before a new school opens.  Based on our history with the BOE, I don’t see how our community could get behind this project without guarantees in writing.”

“It’s the only park on this side of Gaithersburg that's a real open space,” said Beth Junium, a Saybrooke resident. “We have a lot of apartments around here, and it’s the only space they have to really go and play.”

“When they were going to build Forest Oak, they excluded our neighborhood from any site selection or any boundary study,” said Elinor Davis, another Saybrooke resident. “Now we have the same scenario repeating itself 22 years later, as we were excluded from the site selection committee’s meeting.”

“They don’t know how many kids or communities are going to go to the school, but they know that they’re going to build a school with 740 kids,” said an MCPS employee who asked not to be named. “That means 27 kids in a class with one teacher, and when they say 27, they really mean 29 to 32.  If you’ve ever been in a school where there’s even a planned fire drill, it’s chaos. But this is their new policy, to build three-story elementary schools and cram 750 to 800 kids in there. It’s not safe. They have to redraw their clusters. Also, the big thing is walkability. You have to be a mile out to get buses, and you can’t go across a major road. Gerard Street is certainly a major road, certainly Mid-County Highway and certainly 355. The only students who could walk to this school would be ones who aren’t assigned to go there.”

Residents also complained that the school construction would deprive the area of a valued community gathering place and expressed anger that MCPS had not reached out to them directly, and that they only learned about the proposal through Harris’ posts.

“It’s unfortunate that some history exists between nearby neighbors of the park and the school system,” Harris said. “The process for deciding who will go to the new school comes after construction begins, and the neighbors want a guarantee that their children would be districted into the school, which the school system is not willing to give at this time based on their process. Boundary studies are always controversial, and this situation seems to be a bit more than usual.

“In addition to this cluster, we have worked with the school board regarding additional capacity that will be needed in the Quince Orchard cluster, and potential sites are being studied for that need as well. We identified four sites that we thought might be appropriate, and MCPS will examine those and others and make their recommendation for the appropriate action. We feed to find a way to provide the school capacity for our children. Our city, our county, our region continue to grow, and it’s our job to manage that growth. Even though school capacity is not under the direct control of the city, we recognize the need and we work with the agencies that can provide for them.”

@petersrouleau

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