Montgomery County residents fight school's closure

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009; 12:18 AM

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 against the school system.

A standing-room-only crowd of parents, children and local officials packed the Poolesville Town Hall meeting room, with another dozen listening outside in an overflow room. Many wore the striped blue T-shirt of the Monocacy Bobcats, the school's mascot.

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

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

Both schools, in a rural area of the county west of Germantown, have seen their student populations fall over the past decade even as the overall size of Maryland's largest school system has surged to more than 140,000. Monocacy Elementary's enrollment has dropped from 298 students in 1999 to 176 this year.

But the parents -- mostly from Monocacy Elementary, but supported by several from Poolesville, as well as a few teachers -- said they were caught by surprise, noting the school had just received a $200,000 roof replacement over the summer. Unlike other schools that have closed elsewhere 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."

Others objected to the idea of making Poolesville Elementary a larger school, and said they were worried it would lead to overcrowding if additional development took place in Poolesville.

"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."

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

Mackenzie Gross, an 11-year-old fifth-grader who is the student government president at Monocacy Elementary, tried to rally the adults.

"Write letters," she advised. "I'm gonna make posters, signs, gonna do everything to try to keep Monocacy open."

The grownups gave much the same advice, telling the gathered residents that while their numbers might be thinner than a more urban area such as Clarksburg or Bethesda, they could still make a difference if they were ready for a hard fight.

"You've got to keep the fire in your belly, continually," said Jerome J. Klobukowski, a Poolesville commissioner. "You've seen these other clusters, they're like Patton's army going through France."

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