Monday, May 23, 2011

"... open and representative government demands more than four hours of notice ..." [Testimony at tonight's Board of Ed meeting]

My name is Fern Shepard and I have 3 children in Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster schools. Two of them have been through Westland Middle School, so I understand the need for a new middle school in our cluster. I have supported your efforts to get this new school, and I was actively following the site selection process. Yet I did not learn until the day of your vote that our neighborhood park had been named the “alternate” site for the new middle school, and that you would be voting that evening to select this small park in the heart of our neighborhood for this new school.

Some of you have recognized that the process could use some reform, in particular Mr. Durso. We do need a new middle school, but an open and representative government demands more than four hours of notice for a decision that will affect one neighborhood for decades to come.

But the problem here goes beyond a closed process. Last month, you made a decision based on a site selection report that is inaccurate, incomplete, and inconsistent in significant and substantive ways. Some examples of the significant errors in the site selection report include:

SSAC Report at page 4: “Sidewalks are in place for the [sic] all of the candidate sites.” This is wrong; indeed, the number of sidewalks in our entire neighborhood can be counted on one hand. This is a significant omission where pedestrian access is a selection criterion, and where the safety of our children is at stake. And while perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered if the report were wrong on this for a site you didn’t select, in this case, the report is wrong on the site you did select. Couple this error with the fact that our park does not meet the selection criteria for size or vehicle access, and the very basis for the report’s recommendation of this site as an alternate – and for your reliance on that report – is called into question.

SSAC Report at pages 15 & 16: Another selection criterion is access roads, and again, the report contains some significant errors. One site was eliminated from consideration because it only has one access road where it has at least five. The Rock Creek Hills Park has only one access road, not the two stated in the report, and it is a narrow residential street.

SSAC Report at page 16: Another site was eliminated in part because the BCC high school softball team uses its field for practice. But the report completely fails to note that the BCC girls’ soccer team—Maryland State champions three consecutive years in a row—practices on the fields at Rock Creek Hills Park because there are no closer regulation-sized fields available for them to use.

Take those soccer fields away to build this new middle school, which your staff has admitted will happen because there isn’t even room for one regulation-size field, and our girls will have to be driven by parents every day to a field outside our cluster just to practice. And even our middle school teams won’t have an adequate field. How can you rely on a report with this type of omission? How can you rely on a report with this kind of inconsistency?

SSAC Report at page 16: Another site was eliminated from consideration because of “existing and future” traffic concerns, but the report fails to mention that millions of dollars are being spent to improve traffic in this area. This same site—which is 31 acres compared to Rock Creek Hill Park’s 13 acres—also is eliminated because it is “heavily wooded.” Yet no mention is made of the 100 inch-plus diameter trees interspersed throughout the wooded portion of Rock Creek Hills Park—trees which similarly would limit construction options.

No mention is made of the Land & Water Conservation Funds used to pay for improvements to the Rock Creek Hills Park, which may limit your ability to exercise your “recall rights.”

Finally, the report failed to consider alternative uses for existing elementary school sites, options that would allow retooling and reusing existing school sites in ways that may be more cost-effective and less controversial.

You don’t need to take my word for it that you were stuck relying on a flawed report. The Montgomery County Department of Parks criticized the closed site selection process: “where public property is at issue, secrecy does not serve the community well.” But it goes on and raises concerns about the adequacy of the information that underlies the site selection report. It criticized this very same report for its “misunderstanding” of highly popular and important park amenities as “vacant land.” It calls “mistaken” the report’s conclusion that parks are “free” lands that can be transferred without costs. It criticizes the process where “our representative did not have the opportunity to present the cost and other data that would have made a fairer comparison among all the sites under consideration, and that his objections to conversion of parkland were ignored.”

In the end, I can say it no better than your own sister agency did: “[T]here should be more “due diligence” in researching the real costs of all sites… before MCPS undertakes an expensive feasibility study” and “[t]here are certainly other candidate sites that the Board of Education could consider that do no place the County’s valued park system at risk.”

As a BCC cluster parent and a taxpayer, I ask that tonight you pause this process long enough for a revised report that is accurate and complete. This need not take long. But we need a serious, accurate, and thorough look at the pros and cons of these sites, and we need that process to be open so that the best decision is made for the students, the county, and the taxpayers.

No comments: