GAITHERSBURG — The Gaithersburg City Council voted unanimously to grant City Manager Tony Tomasello the authority to negotiate with Montgomery County Public Schools over the proposed construction of a new elementary school on Kelley Park.
On March 22, the Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the superintendent’s recommendation for the construction of a new elementary school on the grounds of Kelley Park, a city-owned property on the east side of Gaithersburg, which features a playground, walking trails, a tennis court, and baseball fields that are used in the summer by the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League. The school is intended to reduce overcrowding in the Gaithersburg cluster, where several of the elementary schools that serve city residents are operating well over capacity.
The vote and the prospect of the new school have been divisive issues in Gaithersburg. Some residents feel that the school would provide much-needed relief to the city’s elementary schools, whereas others have argued that the construction and operation of the school would deprive residents of a valued community gathering and recreational area, negatively impact property values, worsen traffic congestion as a result of parents picking up and dropping students off, and provide negligible relief to the schools.
Several residents of the nearby neighborhoods of Saybrooke, Whetstone Run, Newport Estates, Villa Ridge, and Audubon Square formed the group Save Kelley Park to protest the plans, as well as the lack of outreach from MCPS to their communities. Organizers say they have collected cumulatively more than 1,700 signatures on petitions against the building plans in print and on their website http://savekelleypark.com.
Several city residents testified both in favor and against the proposed school at Monday night’s meeting.
Jim McNulty, president of the Saybrooke Homeowners Association and a candidate for City Council in last fall’s municipal election, related that overcrowding in Gaithersburg schools had been a key consideration in his deciding to enroll his children in private school.
“Not everyone has that choice, and, quite frankly, in Montgomery County, people shouldn’t have to make that choice,” McNulty said. “We know we need a school here. It may not be the ideal solution, but when is it ever ideal? I love Kelley Park. I’ve coached Little League, taught my son to play tennis and shoot hoops there, but I think there is ample room to share that space, and I think that a school there that our kids are able to attend could be transformational for our area.”
McNulty testified at the Board of Education’s March 22 vote, where he argued that the new school provided the Board with the opportunity to “right a wrong” that had occurred when Forest Oaks Middle School opened in Saybrooke in 1996, but neighborhood residents were not permitted to attend in 1996. Organizers of the Save Kelley Park group have cited this experience as another reason for distrust of MCPS’ plans.
“We have seen firsthand the strain that overcrowding has on our school resources,” said Jason Wilcox, a member of Gaithersburg’s Education Enrichment Committee. “The addition of a new elementary school at the Kelley Park site will help to alleviate the overcrowding in the Gaithersburg cluster. At the same time, the EEC feels it is important that the Kelley Park site continue [to offer] services and amenities to the general public, even after the construction.”
Wilcox and others testifying in favor of the project argued that MCPS could establish designated times when the general public would be free to use the school’s playground and gym facilities.
Pam Plaisted, an organizer of the Save Kelley Park group, said that they had received comments on their website from families who had enjoyed using the park for years and hoped to bring future generations there.
“We need to change the boundaries so that kids from Laytonsville stay where they live,” Plaisted said. “Those kids should stay where they are instead of being bused through the Magruder cluster. It’s ironic that they’re riding a bus right through another cluster. Ask the Board of Education what some other ways are to improve test scores besides busing people into other clusters.”
The Save Kelley Park group drafted a “wish list” of demands for Tomasello and the Council in negotiations, including exploring an alternate site at Victory Farm Stream Park, the old WSSC site, which was the MCPS site selection committee’s second choice, or co-locating the new school with Forest Oaks Middle. The “wish list” also contained demands for a Community Advisory Council, staffed by area residents, to advise the City Manager during negotiations.
In his presentation to the City Council, Tomasello noted that the Council had identified overcrowding as a top legislative priority. He discussed the process of MCPS’ search committee, on which he and legislative director Monica Marquina had served. The committee identified 14 potential sites, five of which were deemed unfeasible. The remaining nine were evaluated individually.
“Daytime use during school hours is minimal,” Tomasello said. “During school hours, it tends to be pre-school play or adults walking. Sometimes you see adults playing basketball in the park. It gets really busy later. City staff confirms that after Bohrer Park and Lakelands Park, it is probably our third busiest park on nights and weekends. The perimeter of the school grounds would need to be established in the feasibility study and then negotiated, because MCPS security guidelines would limit access to the school grounds during the day, which is reasonable and expected. But the remainder of the park would be available during the day, and the full side at all other times. I’m not sure that use of the park would be affected all that much.”
Tomasello recommended that the City enter into negotiations with MCPS with the goal of a mutually beneficial agreement for use of the park.
Mayor Jud Ashman, who first entered municipal politics in the mid-2000s by campaigning against school overcrowding, said that both sides of the debate had made legitimate points.
“I’m not thrilled about the precedent,” Ashman said. “It’s MCPS’ responsibility to secure the real estate to house the schools they need to give our kids the high-quality education they demand, and relying on municipal parkland to compensate for the lack of oversight to get what they need ahead of time is not a viable model. At the same time, we do have before us a real opportunity. We have a demonstrable problem of overcrowding in four schools, and the fact is that the Gaithersburg cluster has not introduced a new elementary school in 30 years. Now, we have not only a chance to make a real dent in the problem, but MCPS is offering to build something on an expedited schedule. I can’t in good faith just say no to this. I think that we have an obligation to explore this, so my inclination is to find a way to get to yes.”
Ashman, though nominally president of the City Council, does not cast a vote.
In addition to the vote on Kelley Park, the Council passed Gaithersburg’s annual budget.