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BOE approves Gaithersburg school plans

ROCKVILLE — On March 22, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the superintendent’s recommendation for the construction of a new elementary school in the Gaithersburg cluster as well as an amendment to expedite the boundary study to accommodate the concerns of area residents.

The proposal calls for the construction of an elementary school on the grounds of Kelley Park, a city property in the Saybrooke neighborhood. Construction is projected to be complete in fall of 2022.  School construction has long been a top priority in Gaithersburg, where several of the extant county elementary schools are operating well over capacity.

At the City Council meeting held three days prior to the vote, several Saybrooke residents came to City Hall to express their opposition to the proposal to Mayor Jud Ashman and the City Council.  They expressed concerns that the school’s construction would negatively impact property values and deprive residents of a community recreational space. In addition, many expressed doubts that the school would benefit the Saybrooke neighborhood, recalling the case of Forest Oak Middle School, which was constructed in Saybrooke in 1996 but does not serve students in the neighborhood.

Jim McNulty, President of the Saybrooke Homeowners Association and a candidate for Gaithersburg City Council in last year’s election, testified at the BOE meeting before the vote, and encouraged the board members to take the opportunity to make amends to the community.

“You have the opportunity to right a wrong,” McNulty said. “As you’ve seen firsthand, there is much opposition in my neighborhood to your plan to build a school at Kelley Park, regardless of any concessions that the board might make. But there is also a strong contingent, like myself, that sees the value that a new walkable elementary school would bring to our neighborhood – if we get to attend it.” 

McNulty urged the board to expedite the boundary study process.

Board member Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2), a Gaithersburg resident, stated that she planned to make a motion to expedite the boundary study to the fall of 2018.

“The concern I would have would be the difference that would exhibit between this fall and September of 2022,” said Superintendent Jack Smith. “I don’t know what the history has been, but it does seem to me that the Board could create some preference for that community as the boundary is done, some priority. I would only ask that we not count students that far ahead when it might be very different.”

James Song, Director of Facilities Management for Montgomery County Public Schools, said boundary studies are typically done roughly one-third of the way into the construction process, which for an elementary school is usually around 18 months.

Ultimately, the board unanimously approved the recommendation along with Smondrowski’s amendment to expedite boundary study to 18 months prior to construction’s completion, which also incorporated a suggestion from Smith to direct staff to conduct an extensive review of area elementary and middle schools six months prior to the boundary study.

“I really appreciate Board member Smondrowski’s willingness to advocate for Saybrooke and the surrounding neighborhoods,” McNulty said. “Her amendment to the resolution to trigger a review of the surrounding schools six months out from a boundary study was that gesture of good faith that I asked for in my public comments. Of course, we’d certainly love to get guarantees in writing, but I think this overture from the BOE was a solid first step towards repairing some of the bad feelings from the past two decades. It won’t comfort everyone, but we have to start somewhere. At the end of the day, if there is to be a school at Kelley Park, it’s vital that the each of the surrounding neighborhoods gets to be included.”

As Kelley Park is owned by Gaithersburg, the City Council would have to approve any plans for school construction there.

“It’s land that we’re already using that we’d be giving up,” said Gaithersburg City Council member Neil Harris. “We’d like to have a school for that cluster, so it’s time to come up with a list of what we want to negotiate for. We really want to see how far we can push MCPS to make sure that the residents of the surrounding communities have a good chance to go to that school. Looking at the map, looking at the demographics, it would be very easy to draw a line so you have a good blend of students and socioeconomic levels at the school.  If they don’t want to commit to it yet, that’s more of a challenge.”

Most Saybrooke residents learned about the recommendation after Harris posted about it on his social media accounts and the community organizing app Nextdoor.

Despite the amendment, some residents remained skeptical of the plans.

“Saybrooke, if bookended by two schools, and Whetstone Run end up shouldering more of the burden of placing a school in Kelley Park than any other residents of the Gaithersburg Cluster or even in the entire County,” said Lynn Slepski, a Saybrooke resident who testified against the proposal at an earlier meeting. “No other neighborhoods have two schools on their borders. This school proposal was foisted upon on us without the involvement of a single neighborhood that would be impacted during the planning process which is shameful. The BOE failed to consider the unintended consequences of their actions including increased traffic, noise and litter and parking and safety concerns. They refused to even consider creating a campus at Forest Oak, which is located on 41 acres and has enough land to host two schools a concept that is embraced by many other localities. Doing so would consolidate assets and reap the economic benefits and efficiencies of shared resources including a school nurse, IT and maintenance support staff, especially during these times of limited capital improvement plan resources for schools. Creating such a campus however, would only be acceptable if the entrance was restored as it was depicted in the original plans as coming from Goshen or Mid-County highway, areas that do not route traffic through neighborhoods. My biggest concern is that again, we have no guarantee that our children would have the benefit of the new school or Forest Oak.”

“Just looking around at the park, I realized there was no way that they could really only use part of the park for a school; it would really have to be all or nothing,” said Alison Mercer, a Saybrooke resident. “We already have a jungle gym play area next to a school nearby. We have jungle gyms at the condos and at the nearby townhomes. There’s a big open grassy area within walking distance, but it’s often muddy and I think it’s part of the school grounds, anyway.”  

Mercer added, “Kelley Park is the only park that is within walking distance and has it all. If the park is taken for other things, the city will no longer have access to the wonderful softball/baseball facilities or tennis courts. I don’t know how long we will be in this area, but I had been planning to take my son to little league baseball games there. I don’t know what kind of facilities he would have access to without the park. We love the park. I love that we can walk to the park. I am not directly helped or hurt by a lack of schools around here, but I am very confused because we live right next to an elementary school. I hope we will still be able to enjoy the park.”

@PeterSRouleau

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