ROCKVILLE – The Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education decided to delay a decision to include English Manor as a potential location for alternative education programs.
The board voted 6-2 to approve one feasibility study for renovating the current Blair G. Ewing Center as well as a placeholder for the second feasibility study once staff members finish analyzing about a dozen other locations in more detail. Although board members Chris Barclay (District 4) and Dahlia Huh (student member) voted against the motion, President Pat O’Neill (District 3) said it felt worth it to take the time to study other options.
“We don’t have good options before us right now,” O’Neill said. “We’ve got a whole bunch of stuff that’s going to be kicked down the road and I think we have to make the right decision for the children…I understand deadlines but I just think we can’t be rushed.”
Her proposal came after the board debated member Phil Kauffman’s (At-large) suggestion to delay starting both studies until they had more information on other options besides English Manor, including 10 currently occupied sites that Facilities Management Director James Song brought up.
Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers recommended English Manor, an old elementary school building, as the site for the second feasibility study. The board had asked the County Council to approve $16.6 million to plan for moving the Ewing Center to English Manor, but in January the council told them to restudy possibilities for Ewing Center renovations and the best alternative they could identify, be it English Manor or not.
In addition to the recommendation, Song presented the alternatives they had considered but did not have information on lease terms for any of them. Song said he does not know how long it would take to get all the information the board has now requested, in addition to their request to look at the Rock Terrace building – currently a special education school that may be collocated in the future – and how MCPS could take advantage of commercial space vacancies throughout the county.
Jamison Adcock, an Aspen Hill resident who has been vocal on the issue, said he felt “elated” at the board’s decision that gives them more time and information.
“(Song) should have been prepared. I applaud the board for standing up and saying ‘let’s get some real answers,’” Adcock said.
During the meeting, some board members expressed concern for the lack of information about the alternatives to English Manor, especially when the issue had generated vocal opposition from community members.
“We are coming off sometimes as being perceived as not being attentive to community needs and that, of course, is subjective to opinion but we come up with decisions and then we seem to come up with a rationale that will support that decision and the community’s just supposed to go along with that,” Durso said, stating his opposition to going forward with English Manor.
But Song said English Manor is the best option given what they know.
“We’d done our part in terms of evaluating what we know based on what we have and then formulating the superintendent’s recommendation,” Song said.
Kauffman originally proposed delaying any feasibility studies until the board had more information on the other options Song presented, as well as Rock Terrace building and commercial opportunities.
Bowers and Song cautioned against pushing the timeline too far down the road because the board can only add new projects into the full Capital Improvements Program (CIP) every two years. The board will not have the results of feasibility studies – which typically take four to nine months, according to Song – by the fall when discussing the full CIP.
Barclay said he opposed delaying the feasibility studies and called the County Council “political” in its request for them to do another for the Ewing Center.
“The reality is the kids at the alternative programs are the ones who are being hurt here because they don’t have an adequate facility and we have a decision to make,” Barclay said. “We’re creating arguments to delay this but ultimately it’s doing what? Because based on what I’m hearing, the choices are extremely limited.”
The County Council had requested the board redo the feasibility study on the Ewing Center location because the old one was not based on consolidating all middle and high school alternative education programs to the same site.
Song said staff would not have to start from scratch for that feasibility study as the old one provided a basis from which to start. He said the “conceptual” look at the options will consider logistical challenges like the lease terms as well as how the Ewing Center programs could fit onto other sites.
In response to the board’s vote, Adcock and two others dropped an appeal they had filed last year with the state about the board’s decision to study relocation of the Ewing Center or English Manor and the relocation of the Shady Grove bus depots to the Ewing Center.