Bells Mill Might Be Renovated Sooner

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Just days after their efforts to build an elementary school in Potomac were thwarted by the Montgomery County Council, school officials are floating a plan they hope will end the stalemate over the disputed construction project.

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has proposed that the $32.8 million that would have gone toward building a 640-student school on Kendale Road, to replace the much smaller Seven Locks campus, be used to build a new Bells Mill Elementary campus. The plan, which five of the seven school board members support, would mean that Bells Mill, which is overcrowded and had three portable classrooms shut this year because of mold, would be renovated in August 2009 -- a year ahead of schedule.

But the idea is likely to raise questions about fairness. School construction projects are carefully sequenced, and several school board and council members have expressed concern that expediting work at Bells Mill will upset other communities also in line for construction projects.

The proposal, which school officials began circulating late last week and refined in discussions over the weekend, is the latest twist in protracted efforts to find a solution to overcrowding at Potomac area elementary campuses. The fight over Seven Locks has led to an unusually contentious -- and public -- power struggle between the council and the school board over how best to fix the problem.

Despite community opposition, the school board had pushed forward with plans to build an elementary school at Kendale Road. But in February, after Montgomery County's independent inspector general released a report critical of the plan, the council began to question whether that was the best option. Last week, the council killed the $3.3 million the school board needed to complete the Kendale project.

"Obviously, we needed to find another approach," said Board of Education President Charles Haughey. "We could have continued to push for Kendale, but it seemed much easier to step back."

But it's not clear whether this plan will be a winner.

"It's a very fluid situation right now," said County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). "There is merit to what the school system has proposed."

New classrooms added to Bells Mill could be used to relieve overcrowding at nearby Potomac Elementary. Some building improvements would be made at Potomac, and the Seven Locks campus would remain a 350-student campus. Weast said the cost of his revised proposal is $3.3 million less than the Kendale Road plan.

The council, which does not have the authority to determine where a school is built but does control funding for such projects, is considering another option. Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda) has proposed replacing Seven Locks Elementary School with a larger building on the site.

"We think it's a nice offer, but there are improvements to be made," said Ken Hartman, Denis's chief of staff.

The council is expected to discuss both proposals this week. It would have to make a decision by Thursday to ensure funding for either proposal, or another yet-to-be-determined option, in this budget cycle.

Members of the Seven Locks community said they worry that if a new school is built at Bells Mill, it could siphon off enrollment from their campus, leaving them a target for closure.

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