After an arduous search for land, the St. Mary's County Board of Education last week identified a potential site for a new elementary school along Route 5 in Leonardtown.
The 26 acres of farmland north of Hollywood Road on the east side of the street is owned by Marrick Properties Inc. The Calvert County company is building a 324-unit development called Clark's Rest in the same area, school system officials said. Members of the Board of Education said that they were pleased to find a site for a school, which would help alleviate crowding at others, but that the location was not their top choice.
"We need a school site more on the other side of the county, toward [Route] 235, the California area," said board Chairman Cathy Allen. "That's where the majority of the students are at this time."
To reach a deal with Marrick Properties, school officials had to overcome a few obstacles, Allen said. The site has a couple of acres of man-made wetlands as well as a high water table, which means the planned two-story school will be built on an earthen rise.
"The developer is going to have to bring in a fair amount of soil . . . and build it up," Allen said. "It will be somewhat like a pyramid."
The public drumbeat for new school sites has reverberated throughout St. Mary's County for many months as school officials have tried to accommodate the system's growing enrollment. Twelve of the 23 schools in the 16,500-student system have exceeded their state-rated capacity.
The crowding issue came to a head this week when the county Planning Commission delayed approving two housing developments because classroom space was not available for the children of families expected to purchase the homes.
J. Bradley Clements, chief administrative officer for St. Mary's County public schools, said the county will need to build three elementary schools over the next eight years. He said the school system is in negotiations over two potential sites in the California area.
"We're going to build a school next year," he said, noting that officials have yet to decide which one will be first. "We do need to start building."
School officials met with the Leonardtown planning commission Thursday to discuss the school site even though the land has been approved for public use, said Laschelle Miller, the town administrator. The school, estimated to cost $17 million, would serve Leonardtown's booming housing expansion -- about 1,200 residential units are planned within the next 10 years.
"The town is just very pleased to be able to accommodate the school site within the town boundaries," Miller said. "We have a lot of growth planned with the town."
County commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) said he was disappointed that a vote by the Board of Commissioners last week on the Lexington Park development district took at least three other potential school sites off the table -- two in the Wildewood area and one along Indian Bridge Road. That was the result, McKay said, of the majority's support for maintaining the development district boundaries and not incorporating outside land. McKay was the only commissioner to vote against keeping the boundaries.
"By not opening up the opportunity for schools, all we're doing is sending people into the rural preservation areas where there is land, where there are schools. If you want a development district to work and work the way it should, it has to include the schools, houses and roads that people want," McKay said.
Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) said the Wildewood school sites were not necessarily out of consideration because they were not included in the development district.
"It's certainly not off of the radar screen," he said.
"We had an opportunity to provide for school sites within that community, and [the vote] definitely took those two school sites off the table. We will continue to bus children away from [Wildewood], our largest community in St. Mary's County," he said.
McKay said the commissioners should not have made the decision while the Board of Education was negotiating with landowners for other potential sites in the California area.
On Tuesday, Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills) moved to keep the boundaries the same, and his motion was seconded by Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R-Golden Beach).
"The board was well aware that that decision Tuesday would impact the school board's ability to negotiate for that property," McKay said. "The only thing it could do is raise the price."