Seven Locks School Fight: The Final Score
The Montgomery County Council and school officials last week agreed on a plan to ease overcrowding at Potomac area elementary schools, ending an unusual conflict between the county and school board over school construction projects. The council approved a plan to begin construction of a new Bells Mill Elementary School a year earlier than planned; additional classrooms and a gym are to be built at Seven Locks Elementary School; and portable classrooms will be replaced at Potomac Elementary School. The council and neighborhood residents opposed a plan to build a new school on Kendale Road to replace Seven Locks Elementary.
Jay M. Weinstein, 45, of Bethesda, was one of the residents who fought the school board's initial plans, as a member of the loosely formed Save Seven Locks School Coalition. Weinstein, who has a son at Seven Locks, owns an investment firm. In a piece expressing the views of the coalition, he writes about how the controversy has shaped neighborhood opinions of how government works.
In March 2004, I was happily indulging my lifelong passion for civic non-activism. Then my good friend Livleen Gill (future PTA president of Seven Locks Elementary School) called with the astonishing news that after years of planning a modernization of Seven Locks Elementary School, the Board of Education and School Superintendent Jerry Weast had reversed course 180 degrees. The new plan was to build a new school at a site on Kendale Road, close Seven Locks at the current site at Bradley Boulevard and Seven Locks Road, and make that property surplus to transfer to the county for an affordable housing initiative.
"Impossible," I said. "That's the dumbest idea I have ever heard." But it was true. In a county where all anyone talks about is traffic and education, this bold stroke promised to make both of them worse.
Now, two years later, the Save Seven Locks Coalition has received a civic activism award from the Montgomery County Civic Federation for exposing problems at the Montgomery County public school system and the Board of Education. In a virtually unprecedented move, the County Council refused additional funding for the Kendale school despite the insistence of Weast and a majority of the Board of Education. To avoid the uncharted legal waters of governmental authority that this stalemate would have created, the council, the school system and the Churchill High School cluster community finally agreed on a plan that enlarges Seven Locks at the current site and provides overcrowding relief to Potomac and Bells Mill elementary schools.
After two years of lobbying, thousands of volunteer hours, nearly unanimous testimony against the plan by more than 100 citizens, a picketing of a Board of Education meeting, an unprecedented criticism of the school system and the Board of Education by the county's inspector general and testifying at dozens of public hearings, we accomplished our goal of saving the school. The council was effusive in its praise for the persistence of the community in bringing this problem to light and carrying it through.
Who were the heroes and villains? And what lessons can citizens and public officials learn from the saga of our little band of rebels?
1) You can take on City Hall and win, even against the greatest odds. But you need lots of people -- persistent people, diligent people, irrepressible people. We were lucky, but as they say, luck is the residue of hard work.
2) Although everyone has an opinion about presidents and governors, even the most conscientious citizens have no clue whom to vote for in county and school board elections.
The paradox is, decisions by local officials are infinitely more likely to directly affect voters than anything George W. Bush does.