Opinion Who really owns your neighborhood school?

Plants slowly overgrow the abandoned Radnor Center Elementary School in Bethesda in a photo taken Aug. 19. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
Plants slowly overgrow the abandoned Radnor Center Elementary School in Bethesda in a photo taken Aug. 19. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

In the middle of Kenwood Park, a tranquil Bethesda, Md., neighborhood notable mainly for its cherry blossom trees, sits the Radnor Elementary School. It’s been decaying for years now, its abandoned classrooms still stocked with dusty supplies, like some deserted gold rush town from the 1850s.

I live nearby, and for me what’s happened to Radnor poses the kind of basic civics question that seems to sow confusion — and distrust — in communities across the country. To whom does a neighborhood school really belong: the residents who pay taxes to maintain it or the bureaucracy that controls the land it sits on?

Radnor hasn’t been used continuously since the Montgomery County School Board voted to close it in 1981, as the local population of children started to plummet. By the time my wife and I moved to Kenwood Park with our two small kids in 2010, the building had been repurposed as a “holding school” — meaning that when the county refurbished other elementary schools in the area, Radnor was used as a temporary site.

For many years, neighbors had to endure an endless rumble of speeding school buses in the morning and side streets choked with cars in the afternoon — all for a school we couldn’t use ourselves. None of that bothered us very much, though, because we were among the families who benefited from the rebuilding program. Besides, Radnor remained the nexus of the neighborhood. Our kids climbed the jungle gym before dinner and learned to ride their bikes on the basketball court, just like in any other community. The neighborhood association held its annual picnics on the ball field.

One year, when county workers arrived to install a new fence around the perimeter, a neighbor of mine, the late Bradley Patterson, marched up to the school and insisted the workers install a gate behind his house, so that the neighborhood kids could cut through his yard to the playground. Patterson, who once worked in the Eisenhower White House, explained to me that his yard had been functioning as a shortcut for 50 years, since his own children were small, and he wasn’t about to let that change now.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, the last students to occupy Radnor were hurriedly dismissed, never to return. By that time, the school system was finishing the last of its remodeling jobs, and it no longer had a use for the site. As a deserted school, Radnor instantly became the lowest priority for routine maintenance.

These days, kids moving into the neighborhood can’t use the playground at Radnor because it’s overrun with weeds and scattered with trash. The temporary classrooms, connected by labyrinthine gangplanks, are filthy and rotting. A few weeks ago, a retriever I see there most mornings wandered underneath the portables and severed an artery on what his veterinarian assumed was a shard of glass. The ball field has been overtaken by ivy. The pavement is cracked, the gates broken, the picnic tables mossy. Bolts from a bike rack stick up dangerously from the cement.

Follow Matt Bai's opinionsFollow

County crews recently installed a handicapped entrance ramp, in hopes of luring a private renter. Not surprisingly, no one jumped at the opportunity. The most useful purpose Radnor has served lately is to give police officers a place to train, presumably in case of a school shooting.

For years, the neighborhood association has been beseeching the school system to return the property to the community in some form — maybe as a green space under the care of the county Parks Department, or in partnership with a private sponsor. Local politicians — state Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery) (16) and County Council member Andrew Friedson — have convened meetings. A “working group” has recently been established.

School officials say they’re open to a plan that would put the grounds to better use. But they won’t cede the property permanently, because who knows — we might just need another elementary school sometime in the future, maybe when we all have jet packs.

To me, this entire conversation misses the larger philosophical point. A school system doesn’t really own schools. It’s not a real estate concern or a conglomerate.

It’s not like some entrepreneur in a fleece vest invented the idea of a neighborhood school, and from that innovation grew a company that goes around gobbling up school districts and paying lavish dividends to its shareholders.

Nor is the school district some kind of ruling junta, seizing whatever land it needs and holding it in perpetuity, maybe to build an armory or a small palace.

No, a school system is an amalgam of the residents who fund it, without whom the entire enterprise would disappear. We elect a board to administer our schools, and we pay for everyone who works in them. The bureaucracy we created shouldn’t get to hoard public spaces and then leave buildings to crumble in the middle of a neighborhood.

Look at it this way: Broadly speaking, you pay property taxes to cover four essential services fire, police, schools and green spaces. For many years, we happily lent our school and green space to the county for the greater good. Now that there is no greater good to serve, we’re entitled to have it back.

Of course, times being what they are, I can hear someone saying: “Entitled indeed! You and your rich neighbors whine about your dilapidated school, when less fortunate communities have so much less.” Fair enough. I don’t think any of us objects to paying our taxes or to having them fairly redistributed.

But in this case, we’re not actually asking the government to give us more of something, but rather to do less. The cheapest thing you can do with a vacant building, as big cities have learned, is to tear it down and create green space in its place.

It occurs to me that what I’m seeing in my own neighborhood is really just a version of dozens of stories I’ve reported over the years. In New Jersey, where local taxes were unsustainably high, I wrote about what happened when 550 local bureaucracies refused to share the most basic services, driving up costs and demoralizing everyone.

In Rhode Island, I told the story of a fiscal crisis brought on when state officials decided they could gamble the public’s money on a risky tech startup, as though they were partners in a venture capital firm rather than the stewards of taxpayer wealth.

These states and many others became mired in dysfunction and discord over the past few decades because everyone — voters and politicians alike — seems to have lost their grasp on basic civics.

Sure, taxpayers sometimes forget that someone has to pay for all those services they demand. But local governments are just as apt to forget that those taxes aren’t meant to perpetuate fiefdoms and amass capital. They’re supposed to be pooled and reinvested in essential services. When governments honor that promise, taxpayers tend to be less resentful about paying the bill.

Radnor is a modest asset — a small plot of land in an unremarkable neighborhood, across the street from a couple of ugly water towers. Even so, that asset doesn’t really belong to the state, or the county, or the school board, or the district. It belongs to the community it was built to serve.

A school system shouldn’t lose sight of that. More to the point, neither should we.