The Holton-Arms School can add five students and an extra afternoon swimming session, according to a recent Circuit Court ruling, the latest chapter in an ongoing controversy over the private girls school's enrollment, summer camp, after-school activities and expansion that has chafed its relationship with the surrounding Bethesda community.
Circuit Court Judge William J. Rowan III reversed two Board of Appeals decisions. Last December, the Board of Appeals had reduced Holton-Arms's enrollment cap from 650 to 645 students and told the school it could hold just one morning and one afternoon swimming session a day in which students and teams from other schools can use the pool. The Board of Appeals decisions stemmed from violations found by the county when it reviewed plans for the school's expansion last year.
"It's a significant decision for us," said Diana Coulton Beebe, the head of Holton-Arms. "Those five students have a real impact for us. If you add up those five tuitions, it's an amount that really impacts educational spending for everything right down to financial aid."
The 2002-03 tuition is $19,075. About 17 percent of the students receive financial aid at the school, which has classes from grades 3 through 12.
But the school's neighbors say they are not pleased with the decision, citing concerns about increased traffic on River Road near the school's entrance and elsewhere in the neighborhood.
"Of course it was disappointing," George Springston, president of the Burning Tree Civic Association, said of the ruling. "We thought the decision the Board of Appeals made was the right decision."
Springston has lived in the neighborhood since before the school moved to its current site from Northwest Washington in 1963, watching the school, and congestion, grow. His group and neighboring Bradley Boulevard Citizens Association joined in opposing a number of projects proposed by Holton-Arms over the past two years.
Their chief concern was a proposed access road at the back of the school that would have brought traffic onto residential streets. The plan for the road was tabled. Currently, a second entrance to the school is being constructed, but it will be only for emergency vehicles, Beebe said.
Another bone of contention has been the number of students who can enroll in Holton-Arms's summer camp, for 3- to 13-year-olds. In 2001, the camp enrolled 750 students in each session but last summer was restricted to 645. Because of the Circuit Court decision, 650 children will be able to enroll in each session of the camp this summer.
The issue surrounding the number of campers at Holton-Arms spurred the County Council earlier this year to review the zoning for camps run by secular, private schools across the county. The schools must now obtain county approval for their camps by April 2004 to help ensure that nearby neighborhoods are not inundated with traffic and noise. Holton-Arms became the first the school to file for, and obtain, approval.
Burning Tree and Bradley Boulevard citizens associations entered into a "neighborhood reconciliation agreement" with Holton-Arms last year in which the school agreed to allow residents to review plans and meet with the school every three months.
That has helped ease friction as the school moves ahead with a $20 million expansion plan at its 55-acre campus. The citizens associations helped persuade the school to scale back plans for its athletic facilities. Holton-Arms is now constructing a third athletic field, a track, and a building to house track equipment and lockers.
A new state-of-the art science wing is also under construction.
"The science program has expanded exponentially in the last decade, from a time when very few students took physics. We now have seven sections, which is saying a lot for an upper school with just 300 students," Beebe said. "We're very conscious that there's a much smaller proportion of women than men pursuing science and technology in college, and we want to expand the opportunities for them."
In addition, a performing rehearsal area will be expanded, and the school's entrance will be reconfigured to help ease the flow of cars into the school from River Road.
Residents say they are generally pleased with the progress made in working with the school as it expands. Although the Bradley Boulevard Citizens Association disagreed with the Circuit Court's ruling, its president, Jack Sando, acknowledged that, overall, things are moving in the right direction.
"I think as a result of going to bat on the issue of the access road, we have perhaps accomplished more than we initially contemplated," Sando said. "We now have a voice in how the school impacts the neighborhood on a number of fronts. We're very pleased the process did work."