Kensington Residents Say New County Middle School Design is Inferior

As groundbreaking approaches, residents claim they’ve been unfairly vilified by county school officials


Rendering of the yet-to-be-named B-CC Middle School No. 2

Via Montgomery County Planning Department

Update: This post has been updated to provide a more accurate description of retaining wall heights planned for the school.

Construction of a sorely needed new public middle school for students in Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Kensington is set to start in September after years of planning and litigation.

But some residents near the school site—at Rock Creek Hills Local Park on Saul Road in Kensington—are mounting a last-ditch push for major changes to the school’s design, while claiming the school system’s plans are unsafe, poorly planned and inferior to other middle schools throughout the county.

The residents, some of whose children might one day attend the yet-to-be-named middle school, say they aren’t affiliated with the Kensington neighborhood group that fought the new school with a series of unsuccessful lawsuits.

“This is not just a group of neighbors who don’t want a school in their neighborhood,” resident John Sonnier said. “What they’re proposing is not what we bought in for and we didn’t have anything really tangible to comment on until now that we can address the design and the safety concerns."

The residents put together a packet titled, “What every Montgomery County parent should know about the proposed BCC-Cluster Middle School” and started an online petition demanding a “better solution” for the school’s design that has more than 250 supporters.

The school would be four stories and is designed for 944 students with a “core capacity” of up to 1,200 students, but sits on a site with a 62-foot elevation change from the back athletic fields to a driveway at the opposite corner of the site.

There would be about 100 parking spaces and a parent drop-off area in an L shape roughly where the park’s parking lot is today, which would require retaining walls ranging from two to 15 feet in height, according to the school system.

A bus loop would be built on the other side of the school, near four outdoor tennis courts.

“As currently designed, the project will yield a substandard school, lacking required academic and athletic program elements, which will adversely impact the education and development of up to 1,200 middle school students a year,” read the packet, which pointed to a host of concerns including poor parking lot circulation, insufficient space for athletic fields and traffic safety issues because of dramatic changes in topography.

Site plan of the new B-CC Cluster middle school planned for Saul Road in Kensington. Via Montgomery County Planning Department

Susie Cooper, a neighbor, said she recently moved to the neighborhood and had nothing to do with the lawsuits from the neighborhood group. Still, she is concerned about the school design.

“The entranceway is so dangerous and my child is going to be walking it,” Cooper said. “How come I can’t get anybody to address it?”

In late May, Montgomery County Public Schools Acting Chief Operating Officer Andrew Zuckerman wrote a letter to the community disputing the residents’ claims and emphasizing how badly the new middle school is needed to provide more middle school capacity.

The Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster currently has only one middle school, Westland on Massachusetts Avenue, and is dealing with several elementary schools that must accommodate sixth-graders – students who typically attend middle schools.

Grade six students from Chevy Chase and North Chevy Chase elementary schools would be reassigned to the middle school and a boundary study to figure out which other students would attend the school is set to start in spring 2016.

“As you may be aware, there are some area residents—mostly neighbors of the park—who do not want B-CC MS #2 to be built at this location,” Zuckerman wrote. “We have tried to work with these residents and included them in the process of planning and design of the new school. Unfortunately, some of these residents have resorted to sharing inaccurate information in an attempt to block the project.”

“I think what he implied was really vilifying,” Sonnier said, “basically saying, ‘Here you go, now shut up.’ ”

James Song, director of the school system’s Department of Facilities Management, said it’s not uncommon for MCPS buildings to need retention walls on a particularly hilly site—as is required for the new middle school—and that the site is perfectly adequate.

Song also said the school system has resolved the design issues brought up by Montgomery County Planning Department staff, which spurred a testy hearing in front of the Planning Board on March 26.

After planners suggested an alternate design they said would save some trees and make for a safer entranceway, Planning Department Director Gwen Wright claimed MCPS staff had contacted PTA representatives in the days before the hearing "and told them that Park and Planning is trying to delay the project and that they should speak up."

Song said the planners’ alternative wasn’t better and would actually result in more trees being lost, fewer parking spaces and higher retaining walls.

Craig Shuman, the school system’s construction director, admitted that building the school on the hilly 13-acre site is like “fitting 10 pounds of sugar in a five-pound sack."

Song told Bethesda Beat this week that the school system and planners have since worked out their issues, and that the Planning Department has agreed to approve the project’s forest conservation plan and a non-binding mandatory referral for the overall design.

“Given the expertise of both the [Montgomery County] Permitting office, various government agencies as well as the subject matter expertise of our consultants who do this for their profession, we feel like the latest design that we have is the most efficient, safest and also addresses some of the concerns related to the height of the retaining walls,” Song said.

Song said the project was moving through final review by the county’s Permitting Department and has been put out to bid. As of July 1, all construction funds for the $52 million school have been appropriated and the school is expected to be completed in time for the start of the 2017-2018 school year.

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