Monday, September 26, 2011

"... now we are facing more than a matter of opinion." [Testimony at tonight's Board of Ed meeting]

Good evening, Dr. Starr, Mr. Barclay, and members of the Board.

My name is James Pekar. I have appeared before you several times to speak against building a school in Rock Creek Hills Park because new information just keeps coming up, information that, arguably, should have been addressed during the course of the site selection committee’s work.

Today, I point you to potential legal impediments to the conversion of the park to school use that need to be clarified. There exists documentation that, in 1992, more than $171,000 was authorized from the federal Land and Water Conservation Funds available to the county to develop Rock Creek Hills Park. (You have a copy, attached to my written testimony.) Under the law, parks developed with these funds may not be converted from park use without providing replacement land of equal value in the community. We also have learned that the state Department of Natural Resources believes state Program Open Space funds were used for such development. Under the law, conversion restrictions similar to the LWCF apply.

DNR has said that its “practice” is not to enforce POS restrictions beyond 20 years from the use of funds, but our community does not see authority for this “practice” in law. For that reason, and to identify actual fund sources, we have asked the DNR Secretary to clarify this matter. (A copy of the letter is attached.)

Understandably, people can disagree on the issues of parks versus schools, but now we are facing more than a matter of opinion. We have an issue of law, and the county’s and state’s obligation under the law. An incorrect decision here may trigger enforcement action and/or have an impact on future funding to this state.

With such issues at stake, I ask that you, as stewards of the public’s resources, act prudently. Please halt activity in Rock Creek Hills Park until the provenance of park development funds and associated restrictions is understood, so that we may avoid inadvertently triggering a violation of law.

Thank you.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

"...that the Open Meetings Act was violated throughout the site selection process calls into question the credibility of the entire decision..."

"... [we] respectfully suggest that the fact that the Open Meetings Act was violated throughout the site selection process calls into question the credibility of the entire decision to select the Rock Creek Hills Local Park as the site for a new middle school for the B-CC cluster."
- from the September 19th letter from Mr. John Robinson, President, Rock Creek Hills Citizens' Association, to the Maryland State Department of Education, being "a motion of Rock Creek Hills Citizens Association ... to lodge in this proceeding a copy of the September 15, 2011, opinion of the State of Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dr. Starr, please provide leadership to MCPS staff.

A cursory review of the "minutes" released by Montgomery County Public Schools yesterday (September 20th) for the final (August 17th)* "working meeting" of the B-CC middle school #2 "feasibility study" reveals a misstatement of the facts.

There was no vote defined as a "preliminary vote" (a term that appears in the minutes). A vote was taken, and the courtyard** option lost. Then, the facilitator, Mr. Dennis Cross, noted that there was a division between community members and MCPS staff, the latter preferring the courtyard option, and the former preferring the option with more green space.

Mr. Cross asked the MCPS staff to explain their position. There was never any indication that a second vote would be taken.

Given the hour (remember, this meeting was smack in the middle of a workday!), people left. After they left, a second vote was called. Some people abstained from the vote; one voted twice; and MCPS staff held to their position.

The MCPS-favored option won by one vote, despite the departure of community members.

When Mr. Cross asked if the one-vote winner was the preferred option, community members noted the aforementioned circumstances, and it was agreed that, to be fair to those who had left assuming that voting was complete, both options would be described as preferred by the committee.

Of course, the damage had been done, as equalizing the two options allows the MCPS-preferred option to be selected without being viewed as contrary to the clear vote of the committee.

The "transition team report" recently prepared for our new Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Joshua P. Starr, calls for the "use of transparent processes to promote broader engagement." We call upon Dr. Starr to recognize that these events – like so much of what has transpired regarding Rock Creek Hills Park! – are contrary to that guidance.

* That's right, minutes that were to be posted "within five days" of the meeting were posted more than one month later.
**Another error in the minutes is the statement that with a courtyard, "more classrooms will have natural light". This is of course incorrect, as by law, all classrooms must have natural light.

Friday, September 16, 2011

BREAKING NEWS: State rules that Montgomery County Board of Education's site selection process for Rock Creek Hills Park violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

In an official opinion dated yesterday, the State of Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board "... conclude that the County Board [of Education] violated the [Open Meetings] Act ... and that its site selection committee violated the Act in numerous regards."

From page 5: "We conclude that the site selection committee violated the Act by holding meetings without giving notice to the public, by failing to keep minutes, and by failing to follow any of the procedures required of a public body meeting out of the public eye."

"... we respectfully request that you clarify any restrictions that apply to the conversion of the RCHLP to non-park use ..."

The loss of Rock Creek Hills Park could violate federal law. Two weeks ago, John Robinson, President of the Rock Creek Hills Citizens' Association, wrote to John Griffin, Maryland's Secretary of Natural Resources (a scan of the letter including all attachments is available):

Please contact Secretary Griffin & Governor O'Malley, and courteously request that Secretary Griffin respond to Mr. Robinson's August 31st letter regarding the use of federal Land and Water Conservation Funds to develop Rock Creek Hills Park:
Department of Natural Resources
Mr. John R. Griffin, Secretary 
Tawes State Office Building
580 Taylor Avenue
Annapolis, MD 21401-2397
phone: 410-260-8101
fax: 410-260-8111
Governor Martin O'Malley
100 State Circle
Annapolis, MD 21401-1925
e-mail: governor [this link opens an online form]
phone: 410-974-3901, 1-800-811-8336 (toll free, Maryland)
fax: 410-974-3275
tdd: 410-333-3098

Would Park Loss Violate Federal Law?

This 1992 document confirms that federal Land and Water Conservation Funds were used to develop Rock Creek Hills Park:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

From the Rosemary Hills Neighbors' Association [Testimony at today's Board of Ed meeting]

Superintendent Starr and Board Members,

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you on my community's behalf. My name is Lynn Amano, and I live in Silver Spring. I serve as Co-president of the Rosemary Hills Neighbors’ Association, representing approximately 300 houses surrounding Rosemary Hills Primary School.

We are very concerned about two issues that you are considering in the coming weeks: Proposed boundary changes to Rosemary Hills Primary School, and the new Middle School #2 which is currently being studied for Rock Creek Hills Park.

We believe a vocal constituency is working to undo the successful integration policies that have made our schools the desirable cluster they are today, under the guise of geographic convenience. Nationwide, this is known as a movement to create “Neighborhood Schools.”

The committee that developed the boundary criteria for RHPS was made up primarily of residents from just one community, while the community surrounding the school went unrepresented. The resulting criteria were based almost solely on geographical proximity. Most of the resulting options would double the FARMS and minority population at North Chevy Chase Elementary and cut the same population at Bethesda Elementary by half.

The new middle school planned for Rock Creek Hills is of concern to us for the same reason. The decision made to locate the new Middle School in the "Far North or East of the cluster" sets up a potential geographical divide along racial and economic lines in our cluster if proximity is used as a determining factor for attendance.

The decisions to send Bethesda and Chevy Chase children to Rosemary Hills Primary School and Rosemary Hills children to Westland Middle school, while not geographically convenient, were put in place to balance our cluster and provide an equal education for all BCC students. The national ranking of our schools has shown this to be a successful plan.

The Board of Education’s Quality Integrated Education policy stresses the importance of balanced demographics over geographical considerations.

We respectfully ask that the Board not allow political pressure from a vocal, self-interested minority to undo the gains to all of our cluster’s students made through integration.

Thank you,

Lynn Amano
Rosemary Hills Neighbors' Association

"Do the right thing." [Testimony at today's Board of Ed meeting]

Good morning.

My name is Teddy Springer. I am a resident of Chevy Chase View and a parent of two children in MCPS schools. I sit before you today to ask that you put a “place holder” for a new middle school in our cluster in the upcoming Capital Improvement Program. I have sat here before, I have told you my concerns about building a middle school at Rock Creek Hills Local Park. And you’ll forgive me, but my words may sound very familiar, because my message has not changed. My opinion was not altered during the feasibility study process. Actually, the meetings only furthered my belief that this site is not appropriate for the construction of a middle school.

I will start with an example made clear to me Sunday night. My daughter is an eighth grader at Westland Middle School. Her Back to School Night is this Thursday, and Danny Vogelman, her principal - and an excellent one, by the way - made his usual Sunday night phone call to families. In his message, he talked about parking concerns for the evening. He warned parents that parking would be limited and suggested that we use the parking lot of the Giant located behind the school. What luck that Westland, which is built on 26 acres and yet still has limited parking, has a shopping plaza behind it. As I understand it, the plans for middle school #2 show a parking lot that is deficient in the number of spaces. What will happen at the inevitable evening events at the new middle school? Where will all the parents park? The obvious conclusion is that, because the architect has made many concessions due to the site size constraints, the cars will overflow onto the streets of Rock Creek Hills. And these streets are, in turn, too small to support the kind of traffic flow that results from school-wide events and are too small to be used as a parking lot.

Rock Creek Hills Park is a heavily-used and well-loved park, not just by neighbors, but also by residents all over Montgomery County. But it is a small park, and sacrificing it for the building of a middle school does not serve our students well or use our tax dollars wisely. Because the site is so small, the architect has scaled back the size of the school. Therefore, MCPS will be providing a school that will be too small for its own projected numbers, calling into question the use of portables. This is not the way to properly provide for our children.

Please, listen to the Parks Commission; listen to County Council members; listen to the people in our community. Do the right thing. Use a “placeholder” in the CIP. Because there are options to explore, there are other solutions, there is a way to serve your constituency and provide our children with a quality middle school.

Thank you.

"Please ... work with the Parks & Planning Commission to find a 'better way'." [Testimony at today's Board of Ed meeting]

Good morning, Dr. Starr, Mr. Barclay, and members of the Board.

My name is James Pekar, and today I am here to ask you please to build a school that will meet the projected need for classroom space for 1200 middle school students. The school that MCPS staff propose to replace Rock Creek Hills Park is too small, and challenges associated with the site would not represent prudent use of taxpayer dollars.

Consultation with the County Council confirms that it is possible to use a "placeholder" for a new BCC middle school in the upcoming Capital Improvement Program, and I encourage you to work with the Council to exercise this option.

The process of developing the plan for the middle school has been flawed from the beginning, and appears inconsistent with your policies, your regulations, and state law. As Planning Board Chairperson Carrier has informed you, there may be state and federal impediments to conversion of the site to non-park use. The appeal pending before the State Board of Education raises questions about the availability of the site. Given these outstanding questions, a CIP proposal for a school on the site of Rock Creek Hills Park would simply not be prudent.

Parks Director Bradford has said that a middle school would "obliterate" Rock Creek Hills Park, and offered: "We want to work to find a better way." Of course, the "better way" would yield a better school.

Please, make the prudent choice, spare a small park that is very important to many Montgomery County citizens, and build a better school on a better site. Please, work with the County Council on a CIP placeholder, and work with the Parks & Planning Commission to find a "better way".

Thank you.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Top three myths about the "feasibility study" for Rock Creek Hills Park: Myth #3 - "Smaller".

Presenting a special back-to-school feature: The top three myths about the "feasibility study" for Rock Creek Hills Park! Today, myth number 3: "Smaller."

MYTH: The "feasibility study" for Rock Creek Hills Park resulted in a smaller school, that will allow for preservation of more green space.

IN FACT: The "core capacity" of the school is unchanged, at 1200 students.

PROOF: Numerous official Montgomery County Public Schools documents state clearly that the core capacity of the proposed school is 1200 students. While the proposed initial construction would provide classroom space for fewer students, the plans already include a building addition to bring the school to its final capacity of 1200 students. Of course, the site of the small park is inadequate for a 1200-student school. And, if anyone tells you that a "smaller school" will leave more trees, just ask them to watch this half-minute video:

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Top three myths about the "feasibility study" for Rock Creek Hills Park: Myth #2 - "Integrity".

Presenting a special back-to-school feature: The top three myths about the "feasibility study" for Rock Creek Hills Park! Today, myth number 2: "Integrity."

MYTH: The "feasibility study" for Rock Creek Hills Park was professionally conducted, with consistency and integrity.

IN FACT: As reported by Sarah Gantz in the Gazette newspaper, the "feasibility study" for Rock Creek Hills Park was run by Montgomery County Public Schools using rules that changed midway through. MCPS showed a lack of good faith in addressing neighborhood concerns.

• If anyone tells you that the "feasibility study" was conducted with consistency and integrity, just ask them to watch this one-minute video:
• If anyone tells you that community concerns were addressed in good faith during the "feasibility study", just ask them to watch this minute-and-a-half video:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Top three myths about the "feasibility study" for Rock Creek Hills Park: Myth #1 - "Feasibility".

Presenting a special back-to-school feature: The top three myths about the "feasibility study" for Rock Creek Hills Park! Today, myth number 1: "Feasibility."

MYTH: The purpose of a "feasibility study" is to determine whether it is feasible to build on a site.

IN FACT: The primary purpose of a Montgomery County Public Schools "feasibility study" is to develop a site plan and cost estimate for a construction project (the secondary purpose is to allow MCPS to claim that the neighboring community has been given a chance to have their concerns addressed).

PROOF: On May 17th, at the emergency meeting of the Rock Creek Hills Citizens' Association, MCPS Director of Long Term Planning Mr. Bruce Crispell explained: "The term 'feasibility' is a special term used in the county, that may not be the usual interpretation of the term. It's a study that the County Council requires us to do before we submit a request for capital funds, for the big dollars to build something, and they call it a 'feasibility study'. In almost every case, it's a project that we are fairly confident can be built..." And, on July 11th, at a Town of Kensington meeting, Mr. Crispell confirmed: "I understand that you don't like the term 'feasibility' because in a sense it's not the dictionary definition."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

"... with a new Superintendent, there is a great opportunity ..." [Testimony at last week's Board of Ed meeting]

Testimony by Ms. Cathy Fink at the August 24, 2011 meeting of the Montgomery County Board of Education:

I'd like to welcome our new superintendent, Dr. Starr, and encourage you, and the full Board, to consider supporting a continuance of a placeholder request from the County Council so that the BOE/MCPS can regroup to conduct a more diligent site selection process for the BCC Middle School #2.

To a certain extent, the BOE has inherited some unfortunate circumstances from past Boards. Many possible school locations, including 1/3 of Rock Creek Hills Park, were sold or leased prior to your tenure here and now, you are charged with finding enough land to satisfy the needs for classrooms and education. I don't envy that position.

But, with a new Superintendent, there is a great opportunity to make sure that you don't leave similar problems for future members of the Board of Education when you have moved on.

The problems of site inadequacies that are identified in the hard media and under intense discussion in social media are only the tip of the iceberg. There are serious questions to be answered about the school's diversity and enrollment. There are concerns about lack of adequate athletic opportunities. There are major concerns about the realities of traffic in a neighborhood with such small streets. This is a piece of cake in Japan, but not in Montgomery County.

As reported on the well read blog, Save Rock Creek Hills Park, the recent site selection report "lists only two meetings of the site selection committee: December 14, and January 25. Mr. Jeffrey Bourne referred to the January meeting as 'the announcement meeting', implying that the committee spent only a single meeting, that of December 14, actually evaluating candidate sites, and making their selection."

A placeholder would give time for the BOE to step back, regroup with a more diligent site selection committee and explore a fully vetted group of options for a new middle school. The best way to regain the community's trust, which BOE members have openly admitted to have lost, is to improve the process, involve a well rounded and diverse group of stakeholders, and buckle down to that work.

I thank you for your time and offer to participate in further discussions.