Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Ire mounts over upcounty middle school

Clarksburg parents lobbying for the addition in their community draw support from Montgomery Village

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A plan to build a second middle school in Montgomery Village — a mile from another middle school that is under capacity — is drawing increasing criticism as parents in Clarksburg clamor for the school to be built there instead.

The Montgomery Village Foundation and 300 people have expressed opposition to the school system’s proposal to build a middle school at Centerway Local Park — a 20-acre site next to Whetstone Elementary School. The proposed school — known as Watkins Mill Middle School No. 2 — would feed into Watkins Mill High School.

Clarksburg parents say they need a middle school in their community to cope with the upcounty’s growth. Rocky Hill Middle School, which currently serves Clarksburg, is already over capacity.

Neighbors to the proposed Village site blast the plan for its impact on traffic and for cutting into a popular park.

Through several public meetings this summer, county school planners have explained their belief that students need to be redistributed to cope with the seven-fold population growth projected for Clarksburg over the next decade. Those middle schools are the proposed new Village school, Rocky Hill and Neelsville in Germantown.

Montgomery County Public Schools wants to build the new school at Centerway Park so that 400 students from Montgomery Village who currently attend Neelsville can study closer to home. The move would free up space for the Rocky Hill overflow to attend Neelsville, planners have said.

But the opponents of that plan think their case is clear.

‘‘That’s what we call a Band-Aid solution. We’re going to need more relief than that,” said Donna Pfeiffer, a parent coordinator for the seven schools in the Clarksburg cluster.

Clarksburg parents counter with their own evidence that MCPS projections on enrollments are proving to be inaccurate.

Rocky Hill is three years old and already has two portable classrooms. After opening just last year, Little Bennett Elementary has five portables.

MCPS projections estimated Rocky Hill at 970 students this year. The actual number is more than 1,060. And in its first year with all four grade levels, Clarksburg High School has 1,460 students, 116 more than MCPS projected.

And through it all, opponents say, the process has given short shrift to what they call an obvious alternative: Arora Hills.

Arora Hills is a 1,300-home Clarksburg community under construction with a 20-acre plot on Route 27 reserved for a new middle school.

Though the argument has some merit, said Bruce Crispell, director of MCPS’s long-range planning division, the growth expected at Rocky Hill was 100 students short of meeting the rough benchmarks used to justify a new school.

‘‘It’s a middle school that I think we’ll need some day,” Crispell said last week at a community forum in Montgomery Village, adding that the enrollment numbers will be reevaluated in the fall.

‘‘We’re listening, and I don’t want you to go away thinking that we’re doing this no matter what,” he said. ‘‘This was our initial plan to go down this road, and that doesn’t mean we’re going to go that way.”

It was the last public presentation the school system will make before presenting the plan to the school board in the fall.

A pivotal alliance

The coalition of Montgomery Village and Clarksburg residents made a key strategic gain last week, as they convinced the Montgomery Village Foundation to come out against the plan.

The foundation, which represents more than 40,000 residents, has won major battles against county plans in recent years, including one to build a county industrial park just outside the Village and a developer’s plan to replace the Montgomery Village Golf Course with a high-rise condominium community.

‘‘This is an uphill fight. ... It’s not going to be easy. It can be won, but it will take phone calls, e-mails, the whole works to make this happen,” said foundation board member Gerald Donegan. ‘‘This is going to be a struggle for months and months.”

Site is not set

Even if the school plan gets the go-ahead from MCPS leaders in the fall, other hurdles remain.

The county Planning Board has to sign off on returning Centerway park to MCPS. County Executive Isiah Leggett and the County Council then have their say.

Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown has been watching the arguments develop. Though he has no firm position yet, he sees merit in the concerns of Clarksburg parents.

‘‘We have to have a better understanding of the numbers, where are they drawing the students from, and I think there’s a community impact that we have to understand,” he said last week.

But one thing so far sticks out as interesting, he said:

‘‘You have one community that really wants the school, and the community where it’s slated for doesn’t want it. Talk about a fairly easy approach.”

On the horizon The county school system wants to open a new middle school in Montgomery Village, sometime around 2012. Still in the feasibility study stage, school planners last week presented two architectural scenarios for a site on Centerway Road: a two-story option and a three- story option. The county Board of Education and Superintendent Jerry B. Weast will evaluate the plan this fall.