Montgomery school board backs six-year construction plan

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

The Montgomery County Board of Education approved a $1.49 billion, six-year construction plan Thursday night for the district and shot down a proposal to close a small elementary school in the rural northwestern part of the county.

The plan developed by Superintendent Jerry D. Weast calls for building an elementary and middle school in Clarksburg, one of the county's fastest-growing areas, and expanding Clarksburg High School. If approved by the County Council, it would add wings to nine elementary schools, modernize 18 schools and construct 10 elementary school gyms, among numerous changes.

Parents and students filling the board's chambers in Rockville erupted in loud cheers as board members unanimously voted down a section of Weast's plan that called for closing Monocacy Elementary School near Barnesville in August. The board opted to slow down the process and study alternatives for the area, including a possible closure, with families from the Clarksburg and Northwest clusters.

The original proposal met with fierce opposition from families in the Barnesville and Poolesville areas. On Thursday night, many wore Monocacy's blue T-shirts and waved signs asking the school board to keep the building open.

They got their wish after school board member Judy Docca (Gaithersburg) began the discussion with a resolution to delay the decision until it could receive further study and input from the community.

She was joined by several board members who said the procedure for closing the school had been rushed.

Parents "felt that the superintendent's recommendation didn't give them appropriate respect," Phil Kauffman (At Large) said. "And I think they were right in terms of the timing of the proposal."

Weast held firm on the need to close the school because of under-enrollment -- it has 176 students in a building with a capacity for 206 -- and said the district could ill afford to keep it open.

"Nobody likes to make a recommendation to close a school. . . . We may be back with a very, very, very tough budget, and we will have this auditorium and this whole campus filled on the cuts that will be made," Weast said.

But after the board rejected the plan to close the school, parents hugged one another and one young girl cried. Dawn Albert, Monocacy's PTA president, said they would take a serious look at alternatives.

"This is exactly what we wanted," Albert said. "We're not going to sink our heads in the sand. We have enrollment problems for the entire cluster, and we know it."

The rest of the plan, which runs from 2011 to 2016, passed with minor changes and would address crowding in other parts of the district if it can gain approval from the county government during fiscally tight times.

Although the student population in the rural area of the county has fallen, enrollment in the rest of the district has surged to more than 140,000 and is predicted to hit 148,000 by 2014.

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