Opposition to Montgomery, Md., School Closing

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

More than 100 northwestern Montgomery County residents began mobilizing Wednesday night to oppose the proposed closure of Monocacy Elementary School, arguing that the move would hurt their community and possibly backfire on the school system.

In what was described as a strategy session, a standing-room-only crowd of parents, children and officials packed the Poolesville Town Hall meeting room, several wearing the striped blue T-shirts of the Monocacy Bobcats, the school's mascot.

All who spoke argued for preserving Monocacy, which county school officials said last week would be closed under a capital budget proposed by Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

Citing declining enrollment and the need to save money, Weast proposes to send students from Monocacy eight miles south to Poolesville Elementary School at the beginning of the next school year. Weast said the measure could save $1 million a year if approved by the Board of Education.

The two schools are in a rural area of the county west of Germantown, and enrollment has declined at both in the past decade, even as the number of students in Maryland's largest school system has surged to more than 140,000. Monocacy's enrollment has dropped from 298 students in 1999 to 176 this year.

Monocacy parents appear to account for most of the opposition to Weast's plan, but they are supported by some Poolesville parents and a few teachers. At Wednesday's gathering, the Monocacy parents said the proposed closing had caught them by surprise, and they noted that the school had received a $200,000 roof replacement over the summer.

Unlike many other schools that have closed in the Washington region, Monocacy Elementary is in good physical condition and has a strong academic record.

"We have a lot of concerns that if it is being consolidated, it is being done very hastily," said Sarah Defnet, who coordinates parent activity for the Poolesville area's four schools. "In a sense, we were blindsided."

Several parents wondered what use would be made of the property, which is in the county's agricultural reserve. School system spokesman Dana Tofig said there weren't any plans.

"We can't make plans for the building until the board takes action," Tofig wrote in an e-mail Thursday. "It could be used for another purpose in the district or it could be used by an external group." Tofig said that the roof work was necessary to prevent damage and that the school system is in compliance with state laws on notification of possible school closings.

Weast contends that larger schools are able to offer more programs and opportunities, but some parents said they preferred the small setting of Monocacy.

"I don't particularly want my children to go to big city schools," said Robert Rocco, a Poolesville resident. "I like my children learning in a small town."

School officials said Monocacy would be the first school closed by the county since 1987, when Charles W. Woodward High School in Rockville was combined with Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.

The parents said they intend to begin their fight Nov. 11 and 12 at public hearings on the procedures for considering the proposed school closing.

Fifth-grader Mackenzie Gross, 11, who is the student government president at Monocacy, tried to rally the adults. "Write letters," she said. "I'm gonna make posters, signs, gonna do everything to try to keep Monocacy open."

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