Old Marlboro High School

Old Marlboro High School. (File Photo)

SEABROOK – During the county council’s Committee of the Whole meeting on Oct. 29, councilmembers voted quickly and unanimously to approve the Prince George’s County Planning Board’s recommendations to create a resolution to remove the historical designations of two schools in Upper Marlboro.

The two schools, Upper Marlboro Primary and High Schools, were built in 1886 and 1921, respectively, on a hill on Elm Street in front of Schoolhouse Pond.

The county designated the whites-only school’s historic sites in 2010, chiefly for the fact that the property holds the resting place of Dr. William Beanes, a key player in the inspiration that led to Francis Scott Key writing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Ever since, the property has seen numerous efforts to see them destroyed.

The driving force behind the historical designation removals of two Upper Marlboro schools is Administrative Judge Sheila Adams of the 7th Judicial Circuit of Maryland, advocating for a court school for at-risk youth school to be placed on the property.

In October 2018, Adams spoke at a Prince George’s County Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) meeting to introduce the idea of a court school, inspired by a St. Louis juvenile court Innovative Academy. The location of the historical sites was “ideal due to its proximity to the Courts and the future office of the sheriff.” At the time, Adams stated that she would not seek to renovate the existing schools.

Adams has named her vision the James H. Taylor Innovative Academy, after the county’s first black circuit court judge.

The schools’ historical designations were first considered for reexamination on July 23 in a unanimous vote. Condemnation from Upper Marlboro residents, leaders, and the HPC followed. The HPC, in particular, voted 7-0 on Sept. 16 to recommend to the council and planning board not to approve the amendment that would remove the historical designations.

In a town hall meeting on Aug. 13, residents and commissioners Linda Pennoyer and Kai Bernal-LeClaire questioned the county’s intentions with the property following the buildings’ de-designation and destruction.

On Sept. 17, six people turned out to the District Council and Prince George’s County Planning Board joint public hearing to support the amendment, including Adams and Gloria Burnett, director of the county’s Department of Social Services. Fifteen people on the record opposed the amendment, moving from voicing their opinions within their community to speaking directly to the county.

The most consistent concern from opponents of the amendment surrounded the administrative process that the county council followed to begin the de-designation process. At the end of the July 23 council meeting, the council quietly passed a minor amendment, allowing it to intercept traditional procedures.

Bernal LeClaire has cited that, according to the county zoning ordinance, minor amendments were designed to “advance the goals of an approved comprehensive plan” or “safeguard the public safety health and welfare of citizens and residents (sic),” neither of which the council has shown the de-designation would serve.

On Oct. 17, the planning board recommended that redevelopment of the property attempts “to the extent practicable” to retain the historic fabric of the two buildings and commemorate its history, a significant change from Adams’ original intention.

In all circumstances, Zoning and Legislative Counsel Karen Zavakos and Project Manager Thomas Green have stated to the Upper Marlboro community that the Beanes cemetery would not be disturbed, should the schools be demolished.

The council has never explicitly given a reason for the schools’ de-designation, despite calls by Upper Marlboro residents to state a reason on the record. While Zavakos has only stated that any new development would have the Town of Upper Marlboro’s input, Arthur Horne, a lawyer representing the academy, has emphasized that the property is county-owned. As a county agency, the courthouse has jurisdiction to use the site.

“The county has not declared this property surplus,” Horne said. “They want it. And they want to use it for the James H. Taylor Innovative Academy.”

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