Montgomery County schools superintendent Joshua Starr Wednesday night called for a new site selection process for a what many believe is a badly needed new middle school in the crowded Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster.
In a work session with the Board of Education, Starr said he had concerns about the Rock Creek Hills Local Park site that the Board approved last April, as well as the process used to choose it.
Many neighbors of the park have opposed its conversion to a public school. Parents have also criticized the selection process as being too private.
“Although all of the appropriate steps have been followed, I have to acknowledge that there are enough issues still hanging over this project that additional steps are needed to firm up support for the new middle school,” Starr said to the Board.
Finding available land for future schools in the densely developed down county area has been a challenge for school officials, and the top contenders have been park sites - essentially new terrain for school planners.
The site selection committee’s first choice was the Rosemary Hills/Lyttonsville Local Park, but the recommendation was met with resistance by neighbors and Francoise M. Carrier, chair of the county’s planning board. At the urging of county executive Isiah Leggett, the Board chose instead the Rock Creek Hills Local Park site.
As the former location of Kensington Jr. High School, the alternate site had a key advantage: It was originally Board of Education property that was transferred to the county in 1988 after the school closed amid declining enrollment, but the board maintained a right to take the land back if it was needed in the future.
Now with enrollment swelling, the Board of Education planned to make good on the deal. But Starr said Thursday that reclaiming the land may not be so easy; there may be additional “strings” attached, namely state funding the county received to develop the park and preserve it as open space that places restrictions on the future use of the park.
These restrictions contradict the original terms of the transfer agreement, school officials maintain. But the issue still needs to be hashed out.
By restarting the selection process, this site will be more carefully vetted along with other sites. Starr promised this would not slow down the timeline for opening the new school in 2017.
Board of Education president Christopher S. Barclay said Starr’s decision to rethink the process and potentially reverse course was “a wise thing to do” and indicative of his leadership style.
“He is willing to slow things down so it can work for us in the long term,” he said. “That’s why we hired him.”