The closing of Leland Junior High School in Chevy Chase last year violated the criteria established by the Montgomery County Board of Education and should be reversed, a state hearing examiner has found.
Examiner Elizabeth L. Nilson, in urging the state board of education this week to order Leland reopened as soon as possible, concluded that the county board acted arbitrarily in closing Leland and transferring its students to Western Junior High in Bethesda. She said the board overlooked evidence indicating that the Chevy Chase school was superior to Western in four of eight categories the board had established for judging school closings, and that Leland met the required standards in the remaining four.
Nilson also noted that while the board's decision did not upset the racial balance of either school's enrollment, minority students are now being bused longer distances. Instead of the four miles to Leland, students from the Silver Spring area, many of them minority, are now traveling 6.5 miles to Westland, the Bethesda school's new name since the closing.
It was the second time in less than a month that a state hearing examiner recommended overruling a closing decision of the Montgomery board. But unlike the earlier closings, in which the board ignored the advice of Supt. Edward A. Andrews, both the board and the superintendent agreed to close Leland. The state board of education is expected to take up all of the recommended reversals at hearings next month.
The recommendation effectively delays the county's search for a new use for the vacant 90,000-square-foot structure at 4300 Elm St.
In her decision, Nilson concluded the board arbitrarily weighted one factor, the cost of renovating Leland, more heavily than any of the other seven categories when it determined that declining enrollment required the closing of one of the two schools. Nilson said the board ignored the fact that Leland was less expensive to operate, had less bond indebtedness, would be within walking distance for more students and had fewer alternate uses than Western.
The board had argued that it would cost at least $2.26 million to rehabilitate Leland to accommodate the extra students from Western and that the larger site of Western compared to Leland, 25 acres to 3.7 acres, made Western the obvious choice. At the time, Leland students were being bused to a park for physical education activities because of a lack of adequate playing fields.
Board member Carol Wallace yesterday called the finding "irresponsible." She suggested it was related to the recommendations made by another hearing examiner last month to overrule four of the board's closing decisions made this school year, including that of Rosemary Hills Elementary School, a K-3 school attended by students from the Chevy Chase area.
Some parents who actively fought the closure of Leland, but who now have children at Westland, echoed Wallace's criticisms.
"I'm worried about what's going to happen to the children and our two communities," said Marion Long, co-president of the Westland Parent-Teacher Association and one-time opponent of the Leland closing. Long's daughter was a student at Leland and now is one of the 761 students at Westland. "It means bringing up all the old wounds again and more community division. You're talking about two communities that have now merged and are going to have to divide again and fight for their own schools."
Others, however, were elated by the decision.
"We're delighted," said Richard Sippel, lawyer for the group fighting the closing and parent of a Westland student. "We feel vindicated. We felt all along the board acted arbitrarily and Nilson's recommendations support that."