ROCKVILLE – Activists throughout the county closely following the relocation of the Blair Ewing Center and Shady Grove bus depots say they have hit a roadblock in advocating for their cause.
For about a month, members of the “Save Blair Ewing” group have tried to meet with members of the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education separately or together before the board’s April 14 meeting, when members will vote on which sites to include in a feasibility study for the alternative education programs currently at the Ewing Center.
As of April 8, interim superintendent Larry Bowers recommended to the board English Manor Elementary School and the current Ewing Center site to be the subjects of the two feasibility studies, according to board documents – the outcome the group wants to prevent.
Although advocates had some success talking to members on the phone individually prior to the recommendation, they said they requested a formal meeting with individual members and a staff member told them schedules were too tight.
“The timing was just awkward…the schedules are packed,” said Board Chief of Staff and Ombudsman Roland Ikheloa, who responded to the requests for a meeting. “They’re very concerned obviously. We’ve heard from them over and over again from on the phone, emails…I’m not sure it’s fair to say we’ve prevented them from meeting with board members.”
Ikheloa said board members had schedules packed with meetings about state legislation, the budget and the superintendent search. Between that and meetings with other community members, they just did not have time.
“There may have been meetings scheduled with community members but like I said, there are only so many hours in the day,” he said.
But Ben Smilowitz, a member of the group, said resistance to a meeting will only drive the advocates together, calling it “bad politics.” He said he would accept an apology if the board wanted to give one.
“Members have reached out, some have talked to us, but we want a meeting,” Smilowitz said.
Board President Pat O’Neill said she had received approximately 45 calls to her public board number in regard to the English Manor site, and heard the concerns that citizens do not want the Ewing Center moved there and want to reopen it to alleviate overcrowding. O’Neill said she had heard the activists testify during public comment at board meetings and read their emails as well.
“We’ve heard very loud and clear from the Aspen Hill community that they do not want Blair Ewing moved to English Manor,” she said. “Whether I meet with them, read their emails or receive their voice messages, I know what their concerns are.”
She said the request she received from Smilowitz to meet was more generally about school overcrowding, a topic she would be happy to talk about. But she said the majority of the callers did not ask to meet with her but rather let her know their position on the English Manor issue.
She said she has many days where she leaves the house at 7 a.m. and returns at 10 p.m.
“I have many days that are like that and I just…being a board member is about hearing from the community in a variety of means but it is also intended as a part-time governance position and there’s only so much I can physically do,” she said.
On the Save Blair Ewing Facebook page, people mentioned they had been told to stop calling and send an email to the board members instead.
“Consider politely refusing to email the central email and ask to leave a message for one board member. Emails are easy to ignore, but phone calls are not. They need to hear from us so they understand: Aspen Hill does not want to give up a much-needed elementary school,” advocates posted on the page.
While Ikheloa said he had suggested they email the board with any additional issues, he said no one in his office would tell them to stop calling.
“That would not be my office. That’s why we’re here,” he said.
Residents Jamison Adcock and David and Jessica Rowden have also filed an appeal with the State Boar d of Education about the Ewing Center relocation and O’Neill said the county board has filed a response. She said in the meantime, attorneys have advised her to not discuss the matter as it could potentially become a court proceeding.
The Aspen Hill residents, and now others throughout the county, started banding together when they found out the board planned to relocate the alternative education programs at Blair Ewing to the English Manor building, which used to be an elementary school. The community then discovered MCPS wanted to move its bus depots in Shady Grove to the Ewing site to make way for county redevelopment in that area.
After months of advocating, the County Council put a temporary stop on the redevelopment until they can find a good solution for the relocation of the bus depots, and directed MCPS to conduct feasibility studies on the best places for alternative education programs.