Round two of the site selection process for a new middle school to serve the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster is underway. And even though a new Site Selection Advisory Committee is reviewing properties, issues from the first round continue to simmer.

Whether one of the proposed sites, Rock Creek Hills Park in Kensington, can be converted from a park into a site for a new public middle school is still a matter of contention—at least to residents who are fighting to save the park.

Montgomery County Public Schools officials told committee members at a Wednesday night meeting that their interpretation of a letter from state officials is that MCPS is free to reclaim the park land. The use of federal or state money years ago to develop the park no longer restricts its use as of this February, they said.

The Save Rock Creek Hills Park coalition says, however, that the issue is still pending and that the letter is just one in an ongoing communication between residents and state officials who are looking into the matter.  MCPS’s take on the issue was “testimony to the power of misleading information,” Kensington resident Jim Pekar told committee members.

He said that MCPS was not providing an accurate description of the site’s status.

“That’s not our take,” said Bruce Crispell, director of MCPS’s Division of Long-range Planning in the Department of Facilities Management, cutting off the discussion.

And that was that.

The discussion left a sour taste in the mouths of residents trying to save the park, who say the 13.4-acre site is unsuitable because of its size, topography and lack of adequate access.

The Rock Creek Hills site is one of about a dozen public sites under consideration by the committee, which eliminated another dozen for various reasons at its first meeting earlier this month. Thirteen privately owned sites are also on the table and the committee moved into closed session Wednesday night to discuss those.

Rock Creek Hills Park was the recommended selection of the first site selection committee last year—after a process that was so fraught with allegations of mishandling by community members and public officials that MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr recommended last fall that a new search be conducted.

This time around, there are nearly 50 committee members representing the cluster, MCPS, and various county agencies. Members include representatives from neighborhood advisory groups, B-CC cluster coordinators and PTA officials, as well people representing the County Council, the County Executive’s office, and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Many of the proposed sites are the same as those considered in the first selection. At issue is finding a site that meets MCPS’s preference for 20 acres (with a minimum of just over 10 acres acceptable) that has access roads with a 70-foot-wide right-of-way so buses can easily travel them.

Several of the sites are under the jurisdiction of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The county Planning Board, which is under the aegis of the commission, last year stated its opposition to using the Rock Creek Hills Park for a school, strongly noting that parkland should not be considered for schools.

Parks officials reiterated their position Wednesday night, but acknowledged that parks and schools shouldn’t be pitted against each other. “We recognize there is a higher public benefit to be served,” said parks official Bill Griest. “We’re all in this with the same goal.”

But planning official Fred Boyd pointed out that the planning board has the power to approve or reject a proposal that would remove trees.

In restarting the search process, Starr took steps to make sure all parties are involved from the start and the process remains civil, even allowing minority opinions to be included when the selection committee makes a final recommendation to the school board. 

This time around, the committee meetings are being facilitated by Della Stallworth of the Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County. She set the ground rules Wednesday night, reminding participants to be civil to one another during a process that’s sure to continue to incite strong feelings and opinions. 

“The important thing to remember is everyone operates from what they believe is the best intentions for their children,” she said.

At the very least, that’s one thing that all can agree upon. 

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com