One Little School, One Huge Battle
As the D.C. public school system considers shutting down a slew of its smallest schools, it may be instructive to look north to Montgomery County, where a roaring battle over one small school has now dragged on for three years, and it's still going strong.
Seven Locks Elementary School in west Bethesda is one of the last small schools in the county; it sits on a sprawling campus of 10 acres, land that also serves as the surrounding community's sports center and open green space. But because the school is so small and because Montgomery County is hungry to find land where it can build affordable housing for its teachers, police, fire and other employees of modest incomes, the school system proposed in 2003 to close the school and rebuild it a few blocks away on a much smaller site.
The neighbors went ballistic. They love their school. They love their open space. They know the county needs affordable housing, but they argue this isn't the place. You can read about the back and forth on that issue here.
Because this is Montgomery County, the dispute quickly got into the hands of world-class lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians. Pressure was applied. Protests were mounted. An investigation was launched. (Enough cliches yet?) The county inspector general, egged on by neighborhood defenders of the school, found that the school system's analysis of the relative costs of building a new school and renovating the old one was incomplete and failed to examine less costly alternatives. Schools superintendent Jerry Weast denied the allegation and defended the work.
Now a new school system work group has studied the options once again and concluded--surprise, surprise--that what the superintendent said the first time around still stands: Building the new school is the least expensive option other than shutting Seven Locks entirely and dispersing its children to four neighboring schools. This is an old bureaucratic ploy known as You Really Do Have A Choice: Do It My Way or Shut Everything Down.
No one looks particularly good here. As one MoCo blogger notes, this looks awfully like Superintendent Weast being petty and petulent because the school's PTA and community didn't like his proposal to move Seven Locks to a new location.
This is how most political battles end up when people and institutions are at each other's throats for years on end. The county was right to push for housing on the Seven Locks site; any opportunity to boost density in close-in communities should be grabbed with gusto. (Now the County Council has backed away from any inclination to close Seven Locks; the voters have spoken, with fervor, and the politicians don't have the gumption to stand their ground on such matters.) The school system was right to seek a new building in an effort to relieve overcrowding at nearby Potomac Elementary. The neighbors were right to try to save a small, beloved school.
But the work of running a government is to find equitable solutions and get stuff done, and everyone has failed on both counts. Tonight, the school system holds a public hearing on the Seven Locks mess; defenders of the school view the process as rigged, especially now that the options being considered have been narrowed to two, both of which involve closing their school.
For the county, the only fair solution is to go for the higher good and build housing on that site; a new school could easily be accommodated in a new Seven Locks village. But more likely, this will drag on for a long time, ending in a resolution that satisfies no one. (See Connector, Inter-County.)
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