Saturday, October 29, 2011

$46,485,000 for 944?

Yesterday our Superintendent of Schools recommended that our Board of Education propose to our County Council that a middle school for for 944 students be built, at an estimated cost of $46,485,000.00, on the site of Rock Creek Hills Park.

No other information is available, because the "feasibility study" report for the project has not been released, including in draft form.

As considerable uncertainty exists regarding the availability of the site, such a proposal would not be prudent.

Rock Creek Hills Park fails to meet essentially all of the Board of Education's official criteria for middle school sites; building there would be unreasonably expensive, fail to provide parity with existing middle schools, and violate respect for the rule of law.

Before voting on the Superintendent's recommendation, the Board will hold hearings on November 10th & 14th; persons wishing to testify should call 301-279-3617 beginning 9:00 AM this Monday (October 31st).

If the Board approves the recommendation, the proposal would go to the County Council, which will hold hearings before their vote in the Spring.

An appeal to the State Board of Education, filed by the Rock Creek Hills Citizens' Association, is pending; the Association recently voted (96% to 4%) to continue opposition to this plan, by all reasonable means.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

URGENT: Write Now!

NOW is the TIME to WRITE!

The school Superintendent's capital budget recommendation is due this week, so please click here to let Dr. Starr and the County Council know that you oppose construction of a middle school on Rock Creek Hills Park.

Clicking that link will open an email window. Please make any changes you want, and then please add your name and address at the bottom, before clicking "send".

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Yes, let's stress-test!

At his "Listen & Learn" event last night in Silver Spring, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr said that the decision to build a middle school on the site of Rock Creek Hills Park would be "stress-tested".

We could not think of a better way to stress-test the decision, than by using the Montgomery County Board of Eduction's eight official criteria (see below) for evaluating potential middle school sites. Let's apply them to the park, which fails almost all:

Criterion 1.  LOCATION:  FAIL
"Due to the location of Westland Middle School, at the extreme western side of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Cluster, a site for the new middle school that is centrally located or closer to the eastern side of the cluster is desirable."
The Site Selection Advisory Committee failed to respect the Board's guidance in this matter, as Rock Creek Hills Park is in the far northeast of the cluster.

Criterion 2.  SIZE:  FAIL
"The .... Board of Education standard for a middle school is 20 acres."
Rock Creek Hills Park is a little more than 13 acres, including a steep creek-side slope that drops more than 50 feet, and specimen trees that would be lost to construction.

Criterion 3.  TOPOGRAPHY:  FAIL
"The existence of mature trees and steep slopes should be considered as these factors also could increase development costs or render portions of the site unusable. ... In addition to avoidance of steep slopes, ... as previously mentioned, credit is given for avoiding land ... that is designated as public parkland."
Rock Creek Hills Park has specimen trees and a steep creek-side slope and is a public park!

Criterion 4.  ACCESS:  FAIL
"The ... site should have access to a primary subdivision road, which consists of a 70-foot wide right-of-way. ... sites that have sufficient frontage to accommodate at least three points of access are preferred. ... A separate service drive is needed for deliveries. ... Community sidewalks are preferred to enhance safe student walking access to the school."
Unlike several candidate sites eliminated by the Site Selection Advisory Committee, Rock Creek Hills Park lacks a primary subdivision road.  None of the MCPS feasibility study options include three points of access, or a separate service drive. Community sidewalks are not in place.

Criterion 5.  UTILITIES:  POOR
"A suitable site must have access to public utilities that include water, sanitary sewer, natural gas, electricity, and cable."
Utilities exist, but are inadequate to support the proposed construction, and would require major upgrades.

"Excessive noise, distracting activities, or hazardous industrial-type uses on adjacent land would not be conducive to education."
The park appears hazard-free.

"Site availability is considered..."
Documents suggest that federal Land and Water Conservation Funds (LWCF) and state Program Open Space funds were used to develop the park; as a result, considerable uncertainty exists regarding whether conversion of the site is permissible under state and/or federal law.

Criterion 8.  COST:  FAIL
"Cost was a consideration..."
If the site is available, which is not clear, then it would be necessary to reimburse the parks department for development costs; these are not known. More importantly, under the federal act authorizing the LWCF program, conversion of the park to non-park use would require provision of land of equivalent value in the community. Crucially, because of the small site and steep slope, construction would cost substantially more (perhaps tens of millions of dollars more) on this site than on a more appropriate site. Finally, the "cost" to the community, and to the county, of losing the much-used park would be considerable.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Great confidence"?

At the October 11th meeting of the Montgomery County Board of Education, Dr. Joshua P. Starr, Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, said:
"What's most important to me, quite frankly, and what I've been working on with the team, is making sure our community, our funders, everybody, really understands how decisions are being made, because they are extremely complex and there are of course competing interests and demands. But if we step back a little bit and take a look at how decisions are being made, what the data are, so that everybody really understands what's happening, when, and why, I think folks will have great confidence in the capital improvement program (CIP) that we will be presenting in a few weeks."
We agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment! The idea that the closer you look, the better we look, is a guiding principle of many professions, and is an always-appropriate aspiration for a public servant.

So, would it be possible to have "great confidence" in a CIP that listed Rock Creek Hills Park as the site of B-CC middle school #2? If we "step back a little bit and take a look at how decisions are being made", we see that:
And, aside from the general principle of respect for the law, what about the specifics of the proposed construction? If we were to "really understand what's happening, when, and why", then we would see that:
"The MCPS feasibility study [proposed] a middle school that is too small to meet projected enrollment; to meet bus, faculty, parent and visitor parking; and to provide adequate playing fields. To accommodate 1,200 students will require expansion, which will increase costs and limit sports programs even more. The site does not provide parity with other middle schools in the county per MCPS requirements." 
A middle school on the site of Rock Creek Hills Park would be unreasonably expensive, fail to provide parity with other middle schools, and violate the rule of law. Its inclusion in the CIP would not be consistent with "great confidence" in "what's happening".

Friday, October 14, 2011

"... we decided by a vote of 80 to 3 to continue our opposition to the construction of the proposed middle school on this site."

[An October 8th letter from Mr. John Robinson, President, Rock Creek Hills Citizens' Association, to Ms. Valerie Ervin, President, Montgomery County Council. Identical letters were sent to Mr.  Isiah Leggett, Montgomery County Executive; Mr. Christopher Barclay, President, Montgomery County Board of Education; and Dr. Joshua P. Starr, Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools.]

Rock Creek Hills Citizens Association
9616 Old Spring Road
Kensington, MD 20895

October 8, 2011   

The Honorable Valerie Ervin
President, Montgomery County Council
100 Maryland Avenue
Rockville, MD 20850

Dear Council President Ervin:

This letter advises you of the results of the Rock Creek Hill Citizens Association's (RCHCA) meeting on Monday October 3, 2011.  RCHCA residents attended to discuss the community’s collective response to Board of Education September 22, 2011 final feasibility presentation for the proposed middle school at Rock Creek Hills Local Park.  At the meeting the electronic version of that presentation was available, as well as a handout summarizing the most important site layout and massing diagrams.

Over the course of a one hour and twenty minute discussion period, the community discussed the site layout; environmental issues; the size of the school and its prospects for expansion; probable cost, traffic and safety issues; and environmental issues related to deforestation and storm water runoff.  The basis for the discussion was the MCPS Staff presentations and comments presented at the feasibility study meetings.

After the discussion, including arguments for and against the appropriateness of a new school on the Rock Creek Hills Local Park, of the more than 100 members who attended we decided by a vote of 80 to 3 to continue our opposition to the construction of the proposed middle school on this site.  The community’s concerns continue to be:

  • The size, configuration, utility, and equivalence of the physical plant, especially in comparison to other middle schools.
  • The lack of sufficient space on the site to meet the long term needs of the County school system.
  • Concern that the curriculum would not be as sophisticated as that at Westland Middle School.
  • The high cost of the project estimated at 60 to 70 million dollars.
  • The marginal nature of the athletic fields, again due to the constrained site.
  • The fact that no option could be configured that would provide for the minimum number of parking spaces for a middle school, especially one expected to be expanded to its maximum capacity of 1200 students.

Our concerns about the adequacy of this site for the proposed middle school are exacerbated by the loss of extensive recreational facilities in high demand and utilized by the broader community, including the two regulation soccer fields developed with state and/or federal funds.  It should be remembered that, as noted by MCPS Staff, any school facilities likely will be secured and unavailable for recreational purposes to the community except for minimal times when they are not needed for school purposes.  It is clear that there also will be severe, if not extreme, deforestation and strong potential for storm water damage due to the extensive grading that will be required for this site.  For example, the existing playing fields will be dropped by four feet and at least two ten foot high retaining walls are required under any of the final options presented at the September 22 meeting.  Buffering will be limited accordingly and will take several years to grow in to a point of effectiveness.  Moreover, important information, such as the specific points of traffic impact, was not available before the meeting, and there has not even been a study of whether this is a safe community for a walking school.

To summarize, the proposed middle school on the Rock Creek Hills Local Park would involve high cost, a risk of an inadequate educational program, and severe impacts on the County's recreational facilities and environment.  These facts, coupled with the lack of critical information, even at this late date, caused the community to reject the feasibility study and oppose the construction of the school.  It should be noted that as suggested by the Council and the County Executive the Rock Creek Hills Community participated extensively in all of the feasibility meetings before reaching this decision.

Sincerely yours,
John M. Robinson          
Rock Creek Hills Citizens Association

cc: The Honorable Montgomery Council Members

"... there's not going to be any trees left." [repost]

Parks Director Mary Bradford said that construction of a middle school on Rock Creek Hills Park "would obliterate the park", and, as this video shows, Montgomery County Public Schools appears to agree that "... there's not going to be any trees left."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Here's what we've done to help." [Testimony at today's Board of Ed meeting]

Good morning, 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 on the site of Rock Creek Hills Park. Today, I’d like to suggest an area where, with your assistance, we may find common ground.

As I testified here two weeks ago, a threshold issue exists for you, the county, and the state, in connection with the actual availability of the park site for construction of a school. Documentation shows that, in 1992, federal Land and Water Conservation Funds were used to develop Rock Creek Hills Park. 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. There is third-hand information that Program Open Space (POS) funding may also have been used here, and, if that is the case, restrictions similar to those of the LWCF may apply regarding conversion of the site. For this reason, and to ascertain how the Department of Natural Resources will enforce conversion restrictions, we wrote to the DNR Secretary soliciting his clarification. To date, we have heard nothing from the DNR Secretary on this matter.

Regardless of how one feels about site selection, I think we can all agree that understanding the availability of the site is key to avoiding wasting time, resources, and scarce tax dollars pursuing an option that may not exist. Here's what we've done to help: In addition to contacting the DNR Secretary to seek to clarify the sources of funds, accompanying restrictions, and enforcement, members of our community are also reaching out to Governor O’Malley, to our federal Senators and Congressional Representative, to our state Senators and Delegates, and to our local representatives, to seek clarity on the status of the park.

In the absence of the DNR Secretary's response, it would help the process greatly if you would reach out to these parties and seek their assistance to help clarify the situation. Doing so would be consistent with the due diligence that is required in any site selection, and in this case, it could help avoid enforcement actions or threats to future funding. Please know that we stand ready in this regard to assist you in any way that we can.

Thank you.

"... let’s achieve 'Starr' quality in our new middle school." [Testimony at today's Board of Ed meeting]

Good morning,

My name is Teddy Springer.  I am here once again to talk to you about the building of a middle school at Rock Creek Hills Park, to ask you to put a placeholder in the Capital Improvement Program and to explore the alternative sites for a middle school in our cluster.

Last night, Dr. Starr, had you been able to hold your “Listen and Learn” event at B-CC, I hope you would have listened to our community and learned that to achieve a quality middle school, we have to start with a quality site.  Rock Creek Hills Park is an A+ park, one used by many people from all over our county and beyond.  But it is not a good site for a middle school.

Since beginning your stewardship of our children and our schools, Dr. Starr, I hope you have taken the opportunity to learn these specifics about the park:
  • Though it was once the home of Kensington Junior High, the site is no longer the same because of the senior community that sits where the school once did.
  • It does not provide the necessary space for a middle school on par with Westland.
  • The topography poses a huge challenge to building on this site.
  • The neighboring streets are too narrow, and without sidewalks, to provide proper and safe access to a middle school complex.
  • The many valuable specimen trees and a watershed stream make this site environmentally significant.
But most importantly, I hope you have learned that building a middle school at Rock Creek Hills Park is cost-prohibitive, for exactly the reasons I have just mentioned.  The price to be paid by the county taxpayer would be considerably more than the price paid for other middle schools; yet the finished product would not provide the cluster with a middle school that would give our children an excellent education.  Thus, there would be no equity with Westland.

So please, Dr. Starr, let’s achieve “Starr” quality in our new middle school.  Please put a placeholder in the CIP and advise the Board to continue the search for a middle school site, one that is an A+ site, not one that gets a failing grade.  We recognize the enormity of your task, Dr. Starr, and the myriad of issues before you, but please honor the numerous requests my neighbors and I have made to meet with you.  We want to work together to ensure our cluster continues to provide a gold “Starr” education for our children.

Thank you.

Trees. [repost]

Friday, October 7, 2011

We are not alone.

At Monday's RCHCA meeting, someone said that only residents of Rock Creek Hills – but no one else! – would oppose construction of a middle school on the site of Rock Creek Hills Park.

In fact, we are not alone. Residents of other neighborhoods have gone on record stating that building a school on the site of the park would be bad for kids, and for taxpayers. Some particulars come to mind:
  1. Ms. Lynn Amano, Co-president of the Rosemary Hills Neighbors' Association, testified recently before the county Board of Education, expressing concerns about the park as a location for a school. Ms. Amano's September 13th testimony is available online.
  2. Ms. Donna Savage, Chair of the Coalition of Kensington Communities, representing over 5,000 homes in 9 communities, wrote to Council President Valerie Ervin, opposing the Board's plans to build a school on the site of the park. Ms. Savage's July 22nd letter is available online.
  3. Ms. Caren Madsen, Chair of Conservation Montgomery, wrote to Board President Christopher Barclay, mentioning the "many stakeholders that take advantage of [Rock Creek Hills Park] year round", and urging a meeting with the Planning Board to find an alternate site. Ms. Madsen's June 14th letter is available online.
  4. The Montgomery County Civic Federation resolved that "... parkland should not be treated as surplus or vacant property... " The Civic Federation's June 13th resolution is available online.
We are not alone. We've heard from plenty of folks, from outside Rock Creek Hills, concerned that:
  • The proposed middle school would not be of the same caliber as Westland, and in particular, would not be an International Baccalaureate school.
  • The proposed middle school would not have field space to accommodate multiple extracurricular sports at a time, as is possible at Westland.
  • The proposed middle school would have, given its location in the far eastern side of the cluster,  the potential to upend carefully calibrated efforts to integrate our cluster.
  • The proposed middle school would be unreasonably expensive.
  • The proposed middle school would destroy a widely-used park, including the fields used by the State Champion B-CC High School girls soccer team.
We are not alone. We've heard from many folks who agree that (in the words of a 1979 M-NCPPC memo):
"Because this site was acquired with public funds, and the outdoor recreational facilities (especially the ballfields) serve acute and irreplaceable needs in the area, the public should be permitted uninterrupted and perpetual use of the outdoor recreational facilities."

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"...what is actually at stake is the total loss of Rock Creek Hills Park."

"While phrases such as ' of a middle school in a park...' may conjure images of a tidy schoolhouse set back in a bucolic green space, what is actually at stake is the total loss of Rock Creek Hills Park."
- from our letter in today's Gazette newspaper.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Come to the RCHCA Meeting on Monday!

Come to the Rock Creek Hills Citizens' Association meeting Monday night!

Help save Rock Creek Hills Park, Monday night, by attending the 7:30 PM meeting of the RCHA at the Grace Episcopal School, 9411 Connecticut Ave., Kensington. And don't be late; please plan to arrive early.

A deeply flawed and secretive process led to the county Board of Education's hurried April 28th proclamation that it would take the site of the park from the Parks Department to build a middle school. At a May 17th emergency meeting, the Rock Creek Hills Citizens Association voted overwhelmingly to oppose this by all reasonable means; an appeal to the State Board of Education was filed, and is pending. A complaint to the State Open Meetings Enforcement Board was also filed, and on September 15th the State ruled that the county BOE's site selection process had violated the Open Meetings Act.

Over the summer, MCPS conducted what they call a "feasibility study", with a final presentation on September 22nd, at which this handout was distributed by citizens:

Monday will be the first RCHCA meeting since the final "feasibility study" presentation, so please attend, to learn more about this issue:

  • Did you know that MCPS site guidelines calls for at least 20 usable acres, and Rock Creek Hills Park is only 13.2 acres?
  • Did you know the current plan includes a projected student body of 1200 that would require portables and/or a substantial costly expansion?
  • Did you know that this site does not provide parity with other middle schools in the county per MCPS requirements?
Don’t let the BOE impact the character of our community without your input. Now is the time to ask MCPS for a quality education for our children. Join us at the meeting to learn more!

[Only Rock Creek Hills residents who are dues-paying members of the RCHCA will be able to vote at the meeting. If you are a Rock Creek Hills resident who is not paid up, you can pay your $35 dues (by check only!) at the meeting. Dues are per household but votes are per person, so make it a date.]

Join friends of Rock Creek Hills Park on Monday night!

RCHCA meeting at 7:30 PM.
Grace Episcopal Elementary School,
9411 Connecticut Ave.,