GAITHERSBURG — On March 22, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the recommendation from the Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith to construct a new elementary school on the grounds of Kelley Park which abuts the Saybrooke neighborhood of Gaithersburg.
As the park is city-owned property, Mayor Jud Ashman and the Gaithersburg City Council will have to give final approval for the school construction.
The proposal has provoked mixed reactions from city residents. While some feel that the school would benefit the city and relieve overcrowding, others fear that it would deprive the surrounding neighborhoods of a valuable community space and negatively impact their quality of life.
Several residents of Saybrooke and the nearby communities of Newport Estates, Whetstone Run, Audubon Square, and Villa Ridge formed the website savekelleypark.com to protest the school development plans. Members of the group have testified several times before Ashman and the Council, arguing that, in addition to depriving residents of the use of the park, the project would negatively impact property values and increase traffic congestion as a result of parents picking up and dropping off students. Additionally, group members expressed anger at the lack of communication from MCPS, with many saying that they only learned about the site selection when City Council member Neil Harris posted about it on social media and the neighborhood organizing app Nextdoor.
“I spoke to Neil Harris, and he believes that there is a compromise to be made, that all of the amenities of the park can be preserved or moved elsewhere in Gaithersburg,” said Lynn Slepski, an organizer of the Save Kelley Park group. “I’m not sure that he totally comprehends that there are protected wetlands and a 100-year flood plain that are going to drastically reduce the amount of buildable land. But certainly, we are willing to listen to him.”
The park has a playground, walking trails, a tennis court, and baseball diamonds, which are used by many area residents. The ballfields are also used by the Cal Ripken Collegiate League for baseball games during the summer.
“There’s a lot of activities here for kids, especially in the afternoon,” said Ross Farahifar, who visits Kelley Park daily with his wife to walk the trails. “To tear it up for a school wouldn’t be fair to the kids.”
“There’s a special place in my heart for Kelley Park, and I would hate to see it go,” said an area resident who asked not to be named. “I come here almost every day to jog.”
The stated goal of the school is to relieve overcrowding in the city, where several of the MCPS elementary schools that serve city residents are operating well over capacity.
“I feel like you can have a school and a playground,” said Kevin Tindoll, a Saybrooke resident and middle-school counselor who regularly visits Kelley Park with his wife and children. “Gaithersburg Elementary is a great school, and they have a lot of portables, [but] their enrollment is going through the roof. I don’t feel like the tennis court is used that much; I know people use the ballfields. But my understanding is that they plan to keep the ballfields. I think this is doable. I know that Lakelands Park did something similar where they built on a park and were able to keep most of the things in that park. I know that people have some valid concerns, but I don’t think it would be as bad as they think.”
Jim McNulty, president of the Saybrooke Homeowners Association and a candidate for City Council in last year’s municipal election, has said that he feels the new school could benefit the community, providing that neighborhood residents are permitted to use it. In his testimony at the Board of Education vote on the issue, he said that the board had the opportunity to “right a wrong” that occurred when the Forest Oaks Middle School was constructed in Saybrooke in 1996, but did not serve area residents. He described an amendment proposed by Board Member Rebecca Smondroski and adopted by the board to expedite the boundary study to address residents’ concerns as a gesture of good faith.
At the City Council Meeting on Monday, June 4, City Manager Tony Tomasello is scheduled to present his recommendations for the property to Ashman and the Council.