Board backtracks on Seven Locks replacement

Bowing to pressure, Council and schools form task force to look at all options for elementary school in Potomac

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

County school officials will re-examine plans for Seven Locks Elementary in Potomac amid pressure from the community and the County Council.

Council staff will work with school planners to ‘‘explore all options” for the school, for which the council in 2004 approved $14 million to rebuild on Kendale Road.

The announcement is an about-face for the school system. School officials took a hard stance in favor of building a replacement school on Kendale Road after a report last month by the county’s inspector general said school planners did not provide information to the council about less costly options. Those options included demolishing and rebuilding the school on its current site on Seven Locks Road, a plan now supported by County Councilman Howard A. Denis.

On March 2, school board Vice President Sharon W. Cox (At large) of Germantown read a statement to the council’s Education and Management and Fiscal Policy committees, saying, ‘‘The Seven Locks replacement facility at Kendale best meets the needs of the students.”

Neighbors were also concerned that if the replacement school is built, the Seven Locks site could be declared surplus land and used for affordable housing. Weast has vowed not to surplus the land while he was superintendent.

The Kendale site provides a modern facility, relieves overcrowding at Potomac Elementary, avoids moving Seven Locks students to a holding facility and does not push completion of the Seven Locks project further back, Cox said. It also moves the school from a site that the school system says has traffic congestion and is unsafe for students.

‘‘It was the right decision when it was made, and it is the right decision now,” Cox told the committees.

The board’s position shifted last week after the Potomac Elementary School PTA voted to support rebuilding Seven Locks on its current site, said school board President Charles Haughey (At large) of Rockville.

‘‘A lot of what we heard was from the Potomac Elementary School PTA saying they supported the [Kendale site] option on the table. In the last week or so, they have withdrawn support from that and suggested we take another look,” he said. ‘‘... When there is a profound climate change as there has been suddenly on that site, I suspect the council wants to look at it differently. And the council is our funding body, and we want to respond to council concerns.”

On Feb. 28, Denis (R-Dist. 1) of Chevy Chase introduced a budget amendment to rebuild the school at its current site.

The Potomac Elementary School PTA supports the proposal although it would mean delaying relief to their school, which is about 80 students over capacity and would have received some relief with the opening of Seven Locks on Kendale next year. Denis’ proposal would mean a new school would open on Seven Locks Road in September 2008.

‘‘The change in position of the board leaders and the willingness of the council to look at other options was really sparked by the change in the position of the Potomac Elementary School community,” said County Council President George L. Leventhal.

The task force will ‘‘explore all options,” said Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park. It will include council staff assigned to school construction issues. Chief Operating Officer Larry A. Bowers, facilities director Richard G. Hawes and former planning director Joseph J. Lavorgna, now a consultant, will represent the school system.

The county has already spent about $750,000 on planning, permitting and design for the Kendale site.

The council has been considering a $3.3 million appropriation to cover cost increases in construction materials for the Kendale site.

The task force is expected to make a recommendation to the Education Committee on March 23, Leventhal said, although committee Chairman Michael L. Subin said he doubts whether that is possible.

‘‘My initial reaction is we’re going to have to come back after the budget [is passed],” said Subin (D-At large) of Gaithersburg.

Leventhal said that while he did not want to prejudge the task force’s recommendations, it was ‘‘my clear read that votes were not available on the council for the Kendale site.”

That led him to approach Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, school board members and Subin to pursue other options.

‘‘The ability to provide relief to Potomac Elementary was the whole issue in looking at all options,” Subin said. ‘‘It was a piece the inspector general completely missed. Now that they said there’s been some slackening of the [enrollment] pressure, we can live with overcrowding for another couple of years, the whole ground shifted.”

The relationship between school officials and some council members has been tense in the month since Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley issued his report saying the school system did not present the council with two less costly options and misled the council about support for the project. School officials deny that they misled anyone.

In recent days, the two sides have struck a conciliatory tone.

At an announcement of the county executive’s operating budget recommendations on Monday, Weast gave Leventhal credit for ‘‘helping [to] open up everybody’s mind about what the right thing to do for children is.”

‘‘I think it’s smart to put all the options on the table, look at those options, take whatever time is necessary to make the right decision for the students and the taxpayers over a long haul,” Weast said.