County Council votes to allow sale of Belt school
Apr. 7, 1999

by Frank Curreri

Staff Writer

April 7, 1999

The County Council voted Tuesday to allow a Jewish private school to buy a closed public school in Wheaton, knocking down a resolution by Councilman Blair Ewing (D-At large) of Silver Spring that sought to block the sale of the property.

The 6-2 decision paves the way for Yeshiva High School of Greater Washington to finalize an estimated $1.7 million lease-with-an-option-to-buy agreement with the county government for the rights to a 20.2-acre property formerly known as Col. Joseph A. Belt Junior High School. Belt has been closed since 1983.

Last year's council -- which included three people who are no longer members -- approved the lease and potential sale of Belt to Yeshiva. The Connecticut Avenue/Greenwood Knolls Citizens Association strongly opposes selling Belt to any private school or group and has filed a civil suit against the county. The group is not against Yeshiva leasing Belt, but wants the decaying property to remain under the county's ownership and eventually be renovated and reopened as a public middle school.

The council's actions were not a total setback for residents of the citizens association.

As part of Tuesday's vote, the council created several conditions that are binding on any Yeshiva lease or purchase option for Belt. Most notably, there must be a provision that authorizes the county to buy back the Belt property at any time during the next 15 years if problems such as school overcrowding merit it.

In addition, a portion of the 20-acre Belt property must undergo a subdivision process because it is so close to nearby Weller Road Elementary School and may be needed for public recreation facilities. Subdivision processes can take considerable amounts of time and could have stalled the sale of Belt to Yeshiva. But the council is permitting Yeshiva to sign its lease/sale agreement with the county then undergo the subdivision process, according to Rocky Sorrell, an attorney for Yeshiva.

Always a hot-button issue, the debate over the Belt property once again got ugly Tuesday as first-year Councilman Steven Silverman (D-At large) of Silver Spring accused some opponents of Belt's sale to Yeshiva of being anti-Semitic. Silverman also lashed out about those who accused Councilman Michael Subin (D-At large) of Gaithersburg, himself and other Jewish county officials of conducting secret negotiations with Yeshiva and offering them preferential treatment so the school could move to Belt.

"It is a despicable act to suggest that people of the county are acting on anything other then good faith," said Silverman, who is Jewish. "I deeply resent the implication that my decision will be based on my religious persuasion."

Frank Vrataric, an ardent opponent of selling Belt to Yeshiva or any other private school and the treasurer of the Connecticut Avenue/Greenwood Knolls Citizen Association, has waged many of those same accusations against Subin and Jerry Pasternak, special assistant to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, but was upset about being called an anti-Semite.

"I am offended by what Subin has told other people," Vrataric said. "I've always been anti-segregation. I've been called a [n-----] lover and a Jew lover before because I've stood up for them."

But, Vrataric insists, the preferential treatment needs to stop.

"If it were the Catholics, I'd be doing the same thing," he said, referring to his own religious faith.

Vrataric said he does not believe the council's decision will affect his association's lawsuit against the county.