School Relocation to Be Reassessed

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Montgomery County school system ceded to pressure from the County Council and civic activists, agreeing yesterday to reconsider its proposal to tear down and relocate Seven Locks Elementary School.

The decision came after council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) informed School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast that a majority of the council would vote to block the $17 million project. The council's rebuke was a rare setback for Weast and underscored tension between the council and Board of Education.

Last month, a report by the county's inspector general accused the school system of misleading the public when it said it was cheaper to move the school from Seven Locks Road in Bethesda to nearby Kendale Road than to rebuild on the existing site. The election-year report prompted some council members to call for greater oversight of the school system.

After a meeting yesterday, some council and school system leaders played down tension by issuing a joint statement announcing a task force that will study where and how a replacement school should be built. Board President Charles Haughey (At Large) said the board and the council were "joining hands" for the "kids of Montgomery County."

But other board members are skeptical of the council's motives.

"This is an attempt by [the council] to use their power to force something down our throats to appease people who have money and obviously votes," said school board Vice President Sharon W. Cox (At Large), referring to the Bethesda and Potomac residents who opposed moving the school.

Council Vice President Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) called Cox's comments "destabilizing" and "off-the-wall." Late yesterday, Cox softened her comments, saying she is warming to the idea of a task force so long as "all options are on the table."

Since 2004, Weast and the school board have argued that the school on Seven Locks Road should be torn down and moved to Kendale Road, about 1 1/2 miles away, to help relieve overcrowding at Potomac Elementary.

The school system convinced the council in 2004 that it was cheaper to relocate the school than to rebuild on its existing site. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and Weast had considered selling the Seven Locks lot to developers who promised to build affordable housing.

Residents who opposed the project began asking questions and enlisted Thomas Dagley, the inspector general whose job it is to investigate suspected waste and fraud in county government. In his report, Dagley said the school system presented incomplete cost-benefit numbers to the council and ignored a cheaper option: rebuilding the school on-site.

In response to the report, the Potomac Elementary PTA, which had supported the relocation, endorsed a proposal by council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda) to keep the school where it is.

Denis and other opponents of the relocation said the school system's response to their complaints mirror the county government's reaction to the residents who discovered evidence of building violations at Clarksburg Town Center.

"In Clarksburg, the community was told there was no problem," said Cyril Draffin, president of the Deerfield Weathered Oak Citizens Association, part of the Save Seven Locks Coalition. "Nothing was wrong, but finally they were able to find out there was a problem."

Larry Bowers, the school system's chief operating officer, said at a council hearing this week: "Many of those in the community who oppose this project have placed the interest of property values ahead of the interests of students."

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