Special to The Washington Post
If you live in the Washington suburbs, do schools influence the value of your home?
Last week, I explored that question in this blog, and I used an upcoming neighborhood meeting in Rock Creek Forest as an example of how schools are a hot-button issue in our area.
At issue is where to locate a new middle school that will serve the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area. After officials decided to build the new school at a site in Kensington, neighbors of the site — which is now a park — claimed a lack of democratic process. That has prompted Montgomery County Public School superintendent Joshua Starr to start over with the selection procedures. They are now considering several other locations (see map above), including a site in the neighborhood of Rock Creek Forest.
Montgomery County’s school “clusters” are arranged around the high schools. They each have one or more feeder middle schools, and a few elementary schools at the bottom of the chain. Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School has consistently been rated one of the best public schools in the country, so getting into that cluster is a huge draw for buyers. Rock Creek Forest is the more “affordable” corner of the cluster.
In order to get a voice and seat on the site selection committee to decide the location of what is called Middle School #2, some residents revived the inactive Rock Creek Forest Civic Association, representing the neighborhood that is geographically divided, with two-thirds in Chevy Chase and one-third in Silver Spring.
So, why is the school question so important for this neighborhood?
Is it really all about hindering new development, about traffic and noise, about the potential loss of green space? And does it have nothing to do with property values, as a couple of comments have suggested?
I have come to think otherwise.
(Full disclosure: I live in Rock Creek Forest. I have one child in private elementary school in the District; one at Chevy Chase Elementary School; and one child who attended Westland Middle School and now is at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.)
The multi-purpose room at Rock Creek Forest Elementary was packed last Wednesday, when the three candidates, vying for a seat on the site selection committee, discussed their positions in a long, but calm event.
This week, the tallies were in.
The winner, Tim Wolf, was the candidate who had most fervently stated that he was opposed to the selection of the Rosemary Hills/Coffield Center site (see map above).
But, even though he has a small child and lives across the street from the park, he said his main motivation was not the loss of green space: “My biggest goal in this entire BCC Middle School #2 process," he said in his candidacy statement, “...is to prevent the cluster from having two divergent middle schools. With one that is overwhelmingly white and rich and one that is predominantly poor and minority.”
Wolf's view is echoed in e-mails that were sent in with the votes. The Bethesda-Chevy Chase school cluster was "the primary reason we bought our house," wrote one neighbor on the Rock Creek Forest community listserv. "If we must give up our park to remain in the cluster, so be it." Another feared "segregation of B-CC school" and a "possible strategy to move our community to the Kennedy cluster." Others stressed "equity with Westland" as a priority.
To make this more understandable: Rock Creek Forest, situated just outside the District line, straddles the border between Chevy Chase and Silver Spring. Together with Rosemary Hills, it makes up the small part of the Bethesda/Chevy Chase cluster that is "east of the park," has lower home prices and supplies the largest share of the student body's diversity, partly from large apartment complexes in Silver Spring.
In 2011, the average single family home in the western neighborhoods of the cluster sold for a little over $1.3 million. In the combined area at the eastern end, however, the average was less than half that: $619,000.
Perhaps the fear that Rock Creek Forest Elementary School could ultimately be reassigned to another cluster is unfounded. But nobody wants to face what real estate appraisers call "economic obsolescence," a loss of value due to unforeseeable external circumstances.
In the end, it all does come down to protecting your investment. For many Rock Creek Forest neighbors, their house was also an investment in their children's education.
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