After months of discussion and contention, it has come down to this:
Rock Creek Hills Local Park in Kensington was once again chosen by a site selection advisory committee as the preferred site for a second middle school in the Montgomery County Public Schools’ Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster.
The committee voted overwhelmingly Wednesday night to choose the 13.4-acre park over the 31-acre North Chevy Chase Local Park, the only other publicly owned site still in contention. The committee also considered three privately owned sites during a two-hour closed session, and did not reveal whether any of those also will be recommended.
The advisory committee is expected to send its recommendation, along with minority reports submitted by members, to MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr and the Board of Education by March 12. But, as officials have noted all along, the report is just that—a recommendation. Starr and the board are free to choose another site.
And even though the site selection committee chose Rock Creek Hills over North Chevy Chase by more than a 3-to-1 margin, that doesn’t mean the battle over its selection is over.
Kensington residents fighting to save their park say they will file a lawsuit, contending that the site is unsuitable and legally cannot be converted from a park into a site for a public middle school.
This marks the second time that a site selection committee had chosen the Kensington site. Rock Creek Hills 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 Starr recommended last fall that a new search be conducted.
This time around, MCPS officials strove to keep the selection process transparent. A committee of 47 members, representing the cluster, MCPS, and various county agencies, has met four times to consider proposed sites.
Before Wednesday night’s vote, tension was palpable as committee members and observers from the two neighborhoods urged that their local parks be saved. What seemed lost in the discussion, as one committee member finally noted, was the fact the new school is desperately needed to ease overcrowding at Westland Middle School.
Trading a park for a school shouldn’t be seen as an evil proposition, this member pointed out. “What about our kids? I sort of feel that we’ve lost all that,” she said.
The night’s public discussion over the two public sites centered around the same issues that have dominated the selection process: site suitability, traffic, environmental impact, preserving neighborhoods, and the cost of using the park land.
MCPS officials have determined they can legally reclaim Rock Creek Hills. There is no reclamation right for North Chevy Chase, so MCPS would need to convince the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to give up the park. And park officials have said they object to using parks for schools.
According to parks officials, MCPS would have to pay about $6 million to use Rock Creek Hills—that’s what it would cost to replicate the park’s facilities elsewhere. Because MCPS has the right to reclaim the land, it would not have to pay for it.
Using North Chevy Chase Local Park would cost MCPS about $23.4 million in replacement dollars for the land and facilities, since MCPS has no right to reclaim the land.
And there was a new wrinkle: The federal Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission notified county officials this week that it was against the use of the North Chevy Chase site because it would exacerbate traffic safety issues already enflamed by the relocation of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the National Naval Medical Center.
The selection process may be over, but that won’t stop critics, who claim that MCPS and school officials once again didn’t provide all the information needed to consider the feasibility of the dozens of sites originally under consideration.
But here’s one clear conclusion, as several observers noted: Choosing where to build a new school isn’t likely to get any easier in coming years in a county whose increasing density leaves MCPS with a shrinking list of suitable sites.