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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.)

By Marc Fisher |  May 1, 2006; 7:42 AM ET
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I've always felt strongly that schools should not be closed or redistricted or moved except in extraordinary circumstances. Moving is disruptive to families who chose to live near the school, and closing or changing boundaries is really harmful to the students who will be uprooted and split up. Switching schools just once made things very tough for me as a child. In the Seven Locks case moving the school also involves doubling its size and uprooting students attending a school nearby. The new site is also bad -- nobody could walk to school. Seven Locks is a tippy top performing school, so we want to double its size? Or close it? Why mess with success? I'm not sure anyone takes seriously the option to close the school -- this seems to have been proposed only recently as a petty and vengeful reaction by the board. (You don't like our decision? Okay we'll close your school..)
That said, parents have been maybe too eager to accuse the involved officials of malfeasance and worse. I've experienced it from the other side and it's usually just anger talking. It overpersonalizes the conflict. There are two sides to every story and just because someone disagrees with you doesn't mean they're devious. Also Marc -- I don't believe the low income housing is an issue except maybe for a few parents who live near the school. Moving and doubling the size of a great school is the real problem. Thanks for writing!

Posted by: J from Bethesda | May 1, 2006 11:33 AM

Sometimes the common good overrides the neighborhood, like it or not, and affordable housing in Montgomery County is currently more important than the fate of a neighborhood school, no matter how well-performing it is. I have no doubt, given the demographics of that area, that the kids would do well even if the school were to be moved.

You can be sure that if something similar happened in Rockville or Wheaton, it would be bye-bye school. But the Bethesda/Potomac/Chevy Chase crowd, full of the "right" people with the "right" connections, is used to getting its way, and usually does. (See the Purple Line being blocked by an influential country club as proof.)

Posted by: Vincent | May 1, 2006 11:43 AM

Vincent, you've got it on the nose.

The residents are being selfish. It is one thing for a wealthy county to easily have well performing school districts with the wealthy kids, but we want to do well for all kids in the county and that requires a little more sacrifice than these residents are willing to give. And these are supposedly some of the most liberal well-to-do folks around? Now, depressingly, their selfishness is shining through. This is just an unfortunate case of NIMBYism rearing its ugly head.

There are districts across the country who would be only so lucky to have a brand new school, or even a renovated school. If only the seven locks residents truly understood just how good they have it.

Posted by: Kate | May 1, 2006 12:31 PM

The one thing that you missed in your commentary is that the Task Force which corroborated the Superintendent's findings was a joint one that included the County Council staff and councilmembers' staffs-simply strengthening your conclusions.

Posted by: Mike | May 1, 2006 1:00 PM

The housing issue is secondary. I don't think it's why the school is being moved, nor is it the reason why the school move is being opposed. The parents have said just put the housing at the new school site and leave the school where it is. The real issue to me is doubling the size of the school, moving to a bad location, and uprooting students at the other school I'm not going to start a war over it though. Meanwhile Bells Mill ES in Potomac has moldy classrooms and incredible overcrowding. All that "Potomac wealth" didn't do them any good! Realize that the rich people in Potomac send their kids to private school.

Posted by: J Cochrane | May 1, 2006 1:05 PM

Bah. There isn't any "affordable" housing coming. Just more luxury townhouses and condos. Those required afforable units will probably be some no-frills tiny condos at the fringe of the parcel.

Posted by: tallbear | May 1, 2006 3:34 PM

Actually - late last Fall, Superintendent Weast pledged never to surplus the Seven Locks site. This took housing at Seven Locks and Bradley off the table and led to many asking the question "why are we moving the school again?"

What is going on here is an old fashioned standoff, because MCPS - backed by Councilmember Mike Subin - is unwilling to concede or compromise.

Posted by: brian | May 1, 2006 3:59 PM

Brian has it exactly right. Once Superintendent Weast announced that the Seven Locks site would not be surplused (taking the affordable housing option off the table), County Councilmembers asked ourselves, "so... why then are we voting against what the community wants, if we aren't even going to get affordable housing out of the deal?"

Posted by: County Council President George Leventhal | May 1, 2006 9:18 PM


Replying to the unqualified statement you made:
"...any opportunity to boost density in close-in communities should be grabbed with gusto."

I feel the need to state that this sentiment is the Government's justification for much devolopment on public property in already dense areas of Washington DC. It's how we lose the few parks and libraries that we still have... I'd be more comfortable with what you wrote if you recognized that it's not all about dollars, that there needs to be a reasonable balance. We can talk about what "reasonable" means...

Posted by: Mark | May 2, 2006 1:35 PM

OMG, at the school board hearing Monday some of the parents were way over the top, attacking the board personally and accusing them of all sorts of things. Some of the accusations might have been legitimate but most were unsubstantiated and that's a great way to hurt your own credibility and cause, IMHO. Fortunately the council hearing was calmer. Keep Seven Locks where it is and add capacity for Bells Mill now!

P.S. George Leventhal deserves many thanks for being willing to wade into this mess.

Posted by: J from Bethesda | May 3, 2006 3:55 AM

MCPS has over 700 portables in the county. There is NO "surplus" school land. I don't care how much you want to build affordable housing, the answer is NOT to do it on desperately needed school land. Churchill cluster has enough trailers to fill another whole school. We need the land for a school. And if they built housing, of any sort, on that dedicated school land, then that land would produce more students for fewer schools -- schools that already have trailer parks next to them.

Students in the Churchill cluster have the oldest schools in the county. They also have very low instructional funding dollars, FAR FAR FAR lower, especially in the case of elementary schools, than schools in other parts of the county.

People need to stop thinking kids in Potomac/Bethesda get everything from MCPS. The FACT is they get the least -- by far.

Posted by: Heidi | May 4, 2006 5:18 PM

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