The location for a new elementary school on the White Flint Mall property is under debate, with the county school board wanting a site with access to more space for playing fields than the one county planners are offering.
During a meeting Monday, the school board voted to send a letter to county Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier strongly recommending the school site’s placement in a northern portion of the property where the board says the school could be co-located with an existing park that would provide adequate room for play space.
The school currently is slated for 3.6 acres on the south side of the White Flint Mall property that currently is a parking lot, according to Nkoshi Yearwood, a county planner for the North Bethesda area.
Bruce Crispell, director of the school system’s Division of Long-range Planning, told school board members that staff from the county’s parks and planning departments recently demonstrated “strong resistance to the idea” of a school at the north site.
The site is not only designated in the White Flint Sector Plan for an expansion of the White Flint Neighborhood Park, he said, but county staff felt the school system would be unable to build on the terrain.
Yearwood said the north site includes steep slopes and a forested area.
“We feel it’s feasible to co-locate an elementary school with that park site,” Crispell said.
Many schools have been constructed adjacent to parks over the years, he said, and community members still have access to the parks.
“It doesn’t make the park go away,” Crispell said in an interview. “It’s been a pretty compatible approach.”
A draft of the school board’s letter says that the county planning board is scheduled to review and take action on plans to redevelop the mall property this fall.
“This is, I believe, almost our last shot at this,” Crispell told the school board members.
While Yearwood said he didn’t know if the planning board would take action this fall, he said the next step is for the planning board to review preliminary plans for the mall’s redevelopment.
The issue of the school site’s location will be resolved at the preliminary plan stage, he said.
Several years ago, the school system supported the south site after the north site was reduced from about 4.3 acres to about 2.5 acres due to a road realignment in the plan.
However, the south site later was also reduced from about 4.2 acres to about 3.6 acres following another road realignment.
The board’s preference then switched back to the north side, Crispell said.
The school building would be constructed on the 2.5-acre site and a part of the 8.5-acre park would be used for playing fields, he said.
Even if it were restored to its original size, the south site would be a “challenging” location for the school, Crispell said.
The letter — which needs to be updated before it goes to the school board president for approval — says that if the planning board doesn’t approve the north site for the school’s location, the school system would like to see the south site restored back to its original size of 4.2 acres.
The school system also would want the south site reserved for 20 years to allow enough time for the area’s development to produce enough potential students and for the school system to construct the school.
The White Flint Mall owner currently has plans to redevelop the site for housing, making reservation of the land as a school site necessary, Crispell said.
Crispell said the school system does not have an immediate need to build an elementary school in the area, but is planning ahead should the new development in the White Flint area necessitate one.
“We don’t know for sure exactly what year we would open a school there,” he said.
School board President Christopher S. Barclay said the south site would not be able to accommodate play or parking space along with the school building.
“If we can argue for co-location (with the park), I think we should,” Barclay said.
School board member Patricia O’Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda said the board has been “determined” to secure an elementary school site in the White Flint Sector Plan and should be “explicit” in the letter that it needs an adequate site.
O’Neill said she and other board members recently had heard from Carrier that the school board should have been more involved earlier in the process, yet O’Neill argued that the board has been engaged throughout the years.
“We have not been bashful in our concern about this property,” she said.
Board member Michael Durso pointed to a larger issue regarding school construction during the board’s White Flint discussion.
Throwing it out as a rhetorical question, Durso asked his fellow board members “at what point as a school system do we start talking about the schools of tomorrow and the space that we do not have?”
“If our growth continues or even slows down from the pace we have now, we really have some major issues down the road,” he said.