ASPEN HILL – As Montgomery County Public Schools officials struggle to find a new location for the school system’s bus depot and considers moving alternative education programs, residents here and throughout the county say there has not been enough community input.
On Jan. 15, the Aspen Hill Civic Association hosted a meeting to discuss the two MCPS plans. Although the residents began to get involved after raising objections to MCPS’s idea to move the current Blair Ewing Center into the English Manor site, they are also concerned about relocating the Shady Grove bus depots to the much smaller site.
“(The County Council) should ask the Board of Education why they’re tearing schools down and then asking for money for school construction. It makes no sense. It’s waste,” said Jamison Adcock, vice president of the Aspen Hill Civic Association.
Adcock also spoke at the council’s hearing on Jan. 13 about changing the purpose of $16.6 million allocated for the Ewing Center renovations to be used for the relocation to the English Manor Elementary School site. Residents at the meeting urged Councilmember Sidney Katz (D-3) to vote against the funds.
But Katz said at the meeting the funds are already allocated, so the ultimate decision of what to do with the Ewing Center rests with the Board of Education at this point.
Councilmember Craig Rice (D-2), head of the Education Committee, said the committee will take up the issues of the bus depot and the Blair Ewing Center separately. MCPS has been searching for a new site for its 410 Shady Grove buses for a decade, according to Department of Facilities Management Director James Song. The Ewing Center site is 22.5 acres with about six acres of conservation land, which would make it about half the size of the current bus depot site.
The residents also voiced concern about the quick change in what is supposedly best for the alternative education students, as well as transparency of the board’s decision. At the hearing, Ewing Principal Ira Thomas said the current pod configuration is outdated and not best for the students at the school.
But Adcock points out in the minutes as recently as Sept. 9 the Board of Education discussed the benefits of the potential renovations for the Ewing center.
MCPS Department of Long-range Planning Director Bruce Crispell said new recommendations came to light that made MCPS decide switching to English Manor would be best.
“We’re always looking at the kinds of facility issues we have. We knew we had to move the bus depot so that was one piece of it…when we reassessed the Ewing facility and then knew about the English Manor site being quite nearby, the superintendent determined we should really spend our money there where we have the structure to work with,” Crispell said. “We would have recommended (the move) regardless of the bus depot.”
Crispell said a feasibility study will firm up the cost of renovating English Manor but the $16.6 million already allocated should be enough.
A completed feasibility study on Ewing Center renovations from 2013 presents three options to better use the pod configuration, all below $16.6 million. At the meeting, resident Jessica Rowden said all the options seemed very reasonable for the students. Adcock also said he toured the Ewing Center and while it could use some new paint, he thought the outdoor space and configuration looked much better than some described.
The quick change does not seem unusual to Rice, as new research comes to light.
“We change parameters all the time…it happens in the blink of an eye and you start changing your thought process,” Rice said. “Feasibility versus really providing students with what they really need are two different things.”
Moving to the new location would not just be for the configuration, though – stigma around the previous Mark Twain school still exists, Thomas said in his testimony at the hearing.
“That haunts many of our students today,” Thomas said. “Often community members make the inappropriate association of our program as the Mark Twain program of years ago.”
For residents, the problem also lies in transparency from the Board of Education. MCPS recently posted the feasibility study though it was completed in 2013, according to Adcock and a post from the Parents Coalition, which includes a screenshot.
Adcock said Crispell reached out to the neighborhood about 72 hours before the board’s Capital Improvements Program (CIP) hearings on Nov. 12 and 13. Crispell said he reached out by Nov. 6 at the latest because he had an outdated contact list for Aspen Hill residents on the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission when he first tried to reach out.
He said MCPS typically reaches out to all the homeowners’ and civic associations on that list before a public hearing as part of the CIP process.
But Adcock said that’s not enough, and the group has since heard nothing from the school board or superintendent.
“Instead of reaching out to us, even today the school board is continuing to slag our names and not reach out to us,” he said, referring to comments that the residents are concerned with the alternative education students in their backyard.
At previous meetings, the residents discussed the number of police calls made to the alternative education center and voiced concern about students who may have violent tendencies being in their neighborhood.
Rice said the lack of transparency claims bother him but are separate from the decisions now before the council.
“Based on what I’ve heard, unfortunately I don’t think the community felt as though they were engaged and involved in the process. That’s unfortunate and it should never be that way,” Rice said. “What I don’t want to say is that alleged transgressions of the school board change the decision before us.”