ROCKVILLE – The County Council’s Education Committee told Montgomery County Public Schools to conduct two feasibility studies for the future of the Blair G. Ewing Center after expressing doubts about MCPS’s relocation proposal. The committee’s decision follows months of community opposition to the plan and process.
During the meeting on Jan. 29 the committee called for MCPS to conduct one feasibility study for renovations to the Ewing Center site on Avery Road and one for moving the alternative education programs to another site. MCPS had wanted the committee to reallocate $16.6 million – originally for renovating the current Ewing site – to renovating the old English Manor elementary school.
Out of the $16.6 million allocation, MCPS already set aside $1.5 million to begin design planning, which is enough for the two feasibility studies, according to MCPS Department of Facilities Management Director James Song.
Residents from the affected areas also came out before the committee meeting to rally against MCPS’s request, but Jamison Adcock, vice president of the Aspen Hill Civic Association, said he was satisfied with the committee’s action.
“We’ll get real information, not just guess work on the part of people in the Montgomery County Public Schools system. We can’t address their guesses, they’re based on what? We don’t know. But now we’re going to get feasibility studies so that’s the first step,” Adcock said.
The community rallied in part around a 2013 feasibility study looking at three options for renovating the Ewing Center in its current building and board comments praising the current program shortly before the superintendent recommended using the funds for the English Manor site instead.
Outside consultants conducted that feasibility study in 2013, but then MCPS took a new look at the design of the alternative education programs overall from fall 2013 into early 2014. The superintendent then suggested using English Manor based on the needs of the new program, which would focus on personalized and more flexible teaching strategies.
Song said the $16.6 million should be more than enough to renovate and expand the English Manor building from about 50,000 square feet to 70,000-75,000 square feet at a cost of $230-$235 per renovated square foot and $250 per new square foot.
But committee members said MCPS needs an updated feasibility study for the current building based on the program redesign before plowing ahead with another site. Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D-4) said she recognizes the issues of stigma and desire to best serve the alternative education students but wants to make sure that is what this renovation would do.
“The fact of the matter is English Manor is not going to be a new school, it’s going to have to be completely remodeled and I have not seen the feasibility study under this new program for example to understand clearly what would happen,” Navarro said. “For me it’s not about ‘we don’t want to give our students the best possible facility.’ For me, it’s about ‘have we done the feasibility study that we need to do under this new direction of this new program? Do we have enough data to know that the program is going to actually work?’”
Ewing Center Principal Ira Thomas said he had been pushing for the move to English Manor because the current pod configuration limits the architectural flexibility and carries a stigma that hurts the students.
But he said he did not have a problem with the committee’s decision.
“We should use all the data possible that shows a comparison. (The council members) represent the citizens of Montgomery County and they’ve got to make sure …to make an informed decision and I think by having two feasibility studies brought back before, I think that’s reasonable,” Thomas said.
But Thomas said he still felt the English Manor site would be beneficial because the architects for the 2013 feasibility study told him about the limitations of the current building. He said the latest research recommends clear pathways for supervision. Thomas also gave the example of a technology education lab that is currently too small for students to properly use equipment.
“Because it’s a pod structure, it has a lot of low-bearing walls and the architects told us you’re not going to be able to do much with this building,” Thomas said. “When my associate superintendent Dr. (Christopher) Garran advised me about English Manor, I jumped for joy.”
Thomas also worried about the stigma of keeping the students in the current building. But Navarro said that speaks to a broader issue of how the school system treats alternative education students regardless of the building.
In a February 2014 memo from Starr to the Board of Education, students surveyed commented on the current alternative education program, saying they wanted small classes, more challenging work, AP classes, clubs and teams like “a normal school” and more freedom.
“(Alternative education students) just act bad when everyone thinks they will be bad,” one student wrote.
The future of the Ewing Center is further complicated by plans to relocate the Shady Grove bus depots on Crabbs Branch Way to the current Ewing Center site on Avery Road. MCPS has to vacate the bus depots by January 2017 to make way for county redevelopment.
Some who live near the Ewing Center said they much prefer the school to be there rather than hundreds of buses turning out onto Avery Road.
“I’m concerned about safety. Avery Road is a two lane winding country road with no shoulders, absolutely none, and when I encounter a school bus now I have to virtually come to a stop,” said resident Brenda Vaughan at the rally before the committee meeting. “I can’t fathom the amount of traffic.”
The community has also voiced concerns because the bus depot currently fits 410 buses onto 35 acres and is already a little too small, according to Song. Song said MCPS would design efficiently to try to fit 370 buses on the 22.5 acre Ewing Center site, more than six acres of which is protected by a conservation easement. Also on the site is the Mark Twain Athletic Fields, which the city of Rockville maintains and uses outside of school hours.
Committee Chair Craig Rice (D-2) said he views the bus depot and the Ewing Center relocations as two separate issues. Councilmembers Navarro and Marc Elrich (D-At large) said the two are intertwined.
“We can’t not know what we know,” Elrich said.
The full council still has to vote on the change to make the mandate for two feasibility studies official.