Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr said Wednesday he wants to redo the site-selection process for the second Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster middle school, which is currently planned for Rock Creek Hills Park.
At last night's Board of Education worksession, Starr said he is concerned about the community's response to the process and about possible legal roadblocks that could prevent the schools from reclaiming the park.
"My recommendation to redo the site-selection process is not inconsistent with my CIP recommendation to open the new B-CC middle school in August 2017," Starr said. "There is sufficient time in this schedule to allow for the new site selection process and still open the new middle school by the recommended date of August 2017."
Starr said he will send a memo to the Board in the coming days, detailing the new site-selection process and its timeframe.
Rock Creek Hills Park is the former site of the now-closed Kensington Junior High. After that school was shuttered, the park was transferred to the Park and Planning Commission with the caveat that MCPS could reclaim the site if ever it needed space for a school in the area.
However, in the 1990s, the county used federal funds to develop the park, and the acceptance of that money places restrictions on future uses of the land, Starr said. This may stop MCPS from being able to reclaim the park site, he said. School staff is investigating the issue further.
Starr also pointed to the initial site-selection process, which took place before his tenure and violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act. That site-selection committee conformed to all of the Board's policies and regulations, Starr said, but the negative response from the community makes the issue worth revisiting.
"Although all of the appropriate steps have been followed, I have to acknowledge that there are enough issues still hanging over this project that additional steps are needed to firm up support for the new middle school," he said.
Board Member Laura Berthiaume said Starr's recommendation was wise and that MCPS should cast a wide net in the process to avoid alienating constituents.
"I hope that as we go through this that we’re sure we’ve got neighborhood involvement, PTA involvement but also some federal involvement," she said.
Board Vice President Shirley Brandman pointed out that there is very little undeveloped land in the cluster and, if MCPS doesn't have a right of reclamation on Rock Creek Hills Park, it will be difficult to find space that isn't public land.
"That's the fundamental challenge of weighing public goods: articulating the needs and competing needs for limited public space," she said.
Starr emphasized that he has faith in the recently released feasibility study on the Rock Creek Hills Park site, and that if the new site-selection process reaches the same result, the park will be able to house an adequate middle school.
Starr's recommendation comes after months of protest from Rock Creek Hills neighbors, who have accused the schools of ignoring transparency and failing to engage residents.
Jim Pekar, who blogs at SaveRockCreekHillsPark.org, said in an e-mail to Patch that Starr's recommendation is a step in the right direction.
"Our community is looking forward to participating an open, transparent and fact-based site selection process that seeks a wide range of solutions to the needs of our children," he said. "We are confident that such a process will find better solutions than the Rock Creek Hills Park site, which fails to meet essentially all of the Board of Education's official criteria for a middle school site."
On the Save Rock Creek Hills Park Facebook page, supporters expressed joy over Starr's recommendation and optimism for the new process.
"As the new site-selection committee is being formed, I truly hope that a citizen from Rock Creek Hills area who has spent tons of work researching possible sites and connecting with associated communities will be involved," wrote Cathy Fink.