Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bye-bye 19.5 acres of public school land

When the County Council votes next week to sell 19.5 acres of school land to a private entity the land will be gone forever.  

[Update: The Parents' Coalition has learned that Councilmembers Roger Berliner, Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal, Nancy Navarro, and Duchy Trachtenberg will all support the sale of this property. That's a majority of the Council.]  

Like the many acres of public school land that went before it over the last 15 years, this piece of school land will never again be available for the use of public school children.  

Here's a few of the sites that have been "surplused" in the last 15 years: remember the 32.61 acre site for a future Olney High School,  the 16 acre site for the future Bradley Middle School, the 1.75 acres at Tilden Middle School (Woodward HS site), and the 8.3 acre future River Falls Elementary School site? 

Montgomery County will have less available space to place public schools in the future. Meanwhile, 495 classroom trailers are still in use through out the county, even in the area of the 19.5 acres of public school land that will be sold. 

The Board of Education wants a guarantee that they will be able to reclaim this 19.5 acre site in the future without litigation. Odds of the Board of Education being able to reclaim this land ever? Don't bet on it. 

Gazette: Montgomery Board of Education president wants no court battle over future claim to former high school
But religious academy slated for Aspen Hill site wants to retain legal right
Montgomery County's chief executive is being asked to settle a dispute between the Board of Education and a religious school over the future rights to the former Robert E. Peary High School in Aspen Hill.
In a letter Friday to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), Board of Education President Patricia B. O'Neill (Dist. 3) wrote that the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy should agree not to stop county government from exercising eminent domain and repurchasing the property for the school system's use, given steadily rising enrollment figures in county schools.
O'Neill said she was concerned that the agreement between the county and the Berman Academy left open the possibility that the academy could prevail in a lawsuit over the rights to the property.
But the same day O'Neill sent her letter, Behnam Dayanim, who is vice president of the Orthodox Jewish school's board of directors, said O'Neill's proposal was a non-starter.
"To say we're going to waive all our rights would not be responsible," Dayanim said in an interview with The Gazette on Friday...


  1. I'm biased in this case, as my kids go to Berman Academy, so feel free to reject my comments out of hand.

    I admire your passion for the subject and as a tax-payer in MoCo (whose kids don't benefit directly from MCPS), I'm not so excited about the idea that I'll have to pay more in taxes down the road to fund the build out of MCPS facilities for growing enrollment, if indeed that happens.

    Still, I think the importance that legal agreements have in our society is paramount. The agreement which was made back in the 90s stipulated that the school would have the option to buy the property.

    While that agreement may have been the wrong one for the MCPS back then, it doesn't change the fact that this is the deal. You can't just go off and change the terms if you don't like them.

    To me, this is the most important point and the County has the obligation to sell the land.

  2. The claim that "19.5 acres will be lost forever" is highly misleading - and incorrect. First of all, the 19.5 acres of land includes a large track and field and auditorium space that is available for use by the Montgomery County public. This land is currently enjoyed by the public and will continue to be available in perpetuity under the terms of the proposed contract.
    In addition, everyone at last night's County Council meeting heard that public school enrollment in the Aspen Hill cluster is down and that even MCPS and the County Planning Board have no immediate need for this location. Plus, under the terms of the contract, if this current reality changes and MCPS does need the school at some point in the future, it retains the right to have it back.

    Does that sound like "lost forever"? Stick to the facts.

  3. What obligation? An option to buy is an option.

    The County Council and the Board of Public Works have the right to pass on the deal per the contract. That's not an obligation if they have a vote. Unless you are trying to say they don't have a vote?

    But congrats to your school. Public school children are out of luck, as always. Nothing new. They can continue to sit in classroom trailers and get sick as they have for years from the exposure to the elements and the mold. Students will risk abduction (already happened) and get locked out of their schools (already happened).

    Land that was purchased and dedicated for their use will be sold. Long term public policy is not important in Montgomery County.

    What was "new" last night was to learn that the Planning Board didn't have a role in this process but held a hearing anyway. Guess that was just a trumped up hearing? But no time to discuss that. The Council will vote and move this along ASAP to make sure there is as little time as possible for public discussion/comment. The least amount of time for public comment the better, right?

  4. This land is never coming back to public school children.

    This is not the "Aspen Hill Public School" system. This is the Montgomery County Public School system. School land is the property of the state of Maryland through the Board of Education. School land does not belong to a neighborhood.

    Community use? Prove it. Seriously, let's see the records to see how much community use there is of this property. Let's see the facts.

    Also waiting for the 3 appraisals to be made public, but we know that won't happen.

  5. Janis- The MJBHA has been trying to exercise their right for ten years. The County has delayed that right year after year. To suggest that this issue is being moved along quickly to avoid public discussion is unfair. The public had the opportunity to speak at the hearing last night the 23rd. Only five of the thirty five speakers were against the sale. Two were from the school board whose only reason to stop the sale is maybe, we might need it, one day. The MJBHA renegotiated and added a clause giving the county the ability to claim it back at the 1998 price( whihc is less than what MJBHA will have invested). Two of the other speakers were arguing that the price didn't sound fair even though it was based on three appraisals and a formula at the time of the lease. The last speaker was, in my opinion, an anti-Semitic citizen who should be charged with slander, who accused the MJBHA community AND the council of wrong doing without any basis of support.

    MJBHA has been a good neighbor to Aspen Hill and do not want to be "bad citizens". They serve 700 students who would otherwise have no place to go and want to ensure the future security of their school. They have invested 9 million dollars in good faith that the County would follow through with the contract and to argue they don't have that right is simply not fair, not moral and possibly even illegal.

  6. Let's talk about last night's hearing. Numbers of speakers is not an indication of anything as some of the speakers represented organizations, like MCCPTA and the Civic Federation. Other speakers were individuals.

    Did you ever hear the chair of the meeting admonish the audience to respect the time of the speakers?

    The School Board - that's their job. The "someday use" of the property is the PURPOSE of setting aside public school land for public school children. It is held in trust. It is the job of the School Board to honor that trust. It's OK if School Board members violate the trust given to them by the state?

    No question that for many years the Board of Education did violate that trust. Many acres of public school land were lost to closed session deals. Today's children are already paying for those decisions.

    Again, we hear about the "3 appraisals" yet, no one has made them public. We hear about time - yet documents that should be public are not. Imagine if all of the documents were actually made public so that the public could review all of the facts and information before the Council vote?
    Not going to happen. No illusion that it will.

  7. Janis -- using language that is inflammatory doesn't make your point "right" -- and in fact only dilutes your argument further. To say that MCPS would never ever be able to get the land back should they perhaps need it one day negates the amendment the Academy included in the sale (even though they weren't required, but did so to alleviate MCPS's worries)which allows for the county to reclaim the property should they need it in a fair and legal procedure -- a right that is afforded every citizen of this great country.

    You talk about the students of Montgomery County -- yet you fail to recognize that the 700+ students at the academy are also students of Montgomery County and come from families who pay taxes just like the rest of the families in Montgomery County. In fact, it is taxes from those families that help educated MCPS students. What's more, these students of Montgomery County who attend the Academy are saving MCPS millions and millions of dollars a year.

    Regarding the speakers last night, most were not, in fact, individuals. On the contrary, most speakers -- the overwhelming majority of whom support the sale, by the way -- represent civic associations (Potomac, Kemp Mill, Aspen Hill), are our elected representatives past and present (including Ben Kramer and Roger Manno -- and Ike Legget), are Peary HS Alumni, residents of Aspen Hill who spoke on behalf of other residents of the area, and of course, were those who represented the more than 1,500 people associated with the Academy. Hardly "individuals".

    Finally, regarding the "trust" the School Board has that you speak of in your comments. Letting the Peary HS languish for 14 years and abandoning it to the county -- That's a violation of trust.

  8. Janis –
    I hear your frustration at the state of the public school system – those are real problems that the School Board should be solving. But opposing this particular sale is not going to solve those problems. Even if the sale is not approved, the MJBHA still has a valid lease – and will still maintain the property. You would better serving your public school students to advocate for them in areas where you really can make a difference – but opposing this sale on the grounds you claim is not a productive or strategic use of your time.

    As for the use of the fields and the auditorium – just head out there on any weekday or weekend day. You will see people of all ages – from kids to seniors walking on the track, playing ball, doing Girls Scouts or Boy Scouts, participating in the Girls on the Run program (which is open to any MCPS student). The list of uses goes on and on – we are happy to share this space.

    As for your concern that the School Board may violate “the public trust” – let me assure you – it already has. It allowed all 19.5 acres to become infested with drug users, gang members, thieves, used needles and syringes, weapons, mold, etc. It owes it to its citizens to honor the contract it already entered into which reversed the damage it enabled. And by the way, the county was willing to sell the land to MJBHA back in 1994, but instead, we struck a deal and invested 9 million to make it inhabitable again.

  9. And public school children should pay for that, right?

    700 students is the size on an MCPS elementary school.

    Reality is this property will never come back to public school students.

  10. Public use - let's see the documents. Let's see the rental forms and the income produced by the rentals.

    And again, public school students should pay. Got it.

  11. I am one of the speakers from last night. After the meeting I was approached by 3 people each of whom called me an anti-semite. Rule by mob, and these attempts at intimidation, which is what happened last night, is unacceptable in a democracy. The booing and hissing when people spoke was unconscionable. I am not sure what is going on behind the scenes, but if Ms. Panitch wants to charge me with slander, be my guest.
    Puala Bienenfeld

  12. Janis –

    I hope that you will consider the things you can be thankful for over Thanksgiving weekend instead of complaining and blaming others. Think about the things in the world that are truly unjust that you can focus your energy on – there are plenty. This situation is just not it.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

  13. You're right -- no Montgomery County student should pay for the violation of trust perpetrated by the school board.

    No student -- not a public school student OR a private school student (who is paying for the education of public school students and saving the public school system millions).

    And no one -- not even public school students -- is losing in this deal.

    This sale is win-win-win-win:

    A win for the county who gets $1.9million dollars right now and DID NOT have to invest the $9million it required to rebuild the building the School Board abandoned.

    A win for the School Board because they will be able to reclaim the property should the need arise in the furture.

    A win for Montgomery County children who happen to attend this school instead of packing in to neighborhood public schools.

    A win for the community of Aspen Hill who saw their property values rise as a direct consequence of the rebuilding of the school that the School Board abandonded and the County neglected -- and who get to use the property's public spaces when they want to.

    Who can argue with that?

  14. A little bit of history - March 3, 2004 - 300 parents and community members showed up at the Board of Education for a hearing on surplussing school land.

  15. So many of these comments and many of the comments at yesterday's hearing fail to deal with the root of the issue. A contract was made and is not being kept. A good faith agreement is only being upheld by one side if the school is not allowed to exercise its right to purchase. All of the other arguments about property values, public school demographics and the rest are frankly distractions to the central,legal issue at hand.

    Will all the concerned public school proponents provide the money to maintain an empty school for years until a need is actually identified and let the school fall into disrepair once again?

    I,for one,was not convinced by any of last night's naysayers. Where is the trust in our local government if written promises can be broken simply to assuage the fear of an unrealized future?

    Dr. Erica Brown

  16. Contract is for an option to buy. Option. Please point to word must in contract. Thanks.

    And the "unrealized future" is here. Clearly, not an issue to parents of students in private school, but an issue for parents in the public schools in the county. Overcrowding and the use of classroom trailers instead of brick and mortar buildings is real and is the state of the school system now.

  17. The contract is just that -- an agreement by TWO parties. The County citizens and taxpayers do not "owe" a private school anything.
    Paula Bienenfeld

  18. The option states that approval can not be unreasonably withheld in selling the Peary site to MJBHA. So this option is valid and enforceable.

    Perhaps, if MCPS could demonstrate a present need for the site, the option would be denied.

    However, the president of MCPS has made it clear that there is no present need and could not even substantiate when such a need could occur.

    Janis, your concern for the current overcrowding is illogical.
    If MJBHA purchases the school and MCPS can demonstrate a real need for the building, then MCPS could take back the site in 5 years.
    If MJBHA does not buy the site, then the current lease stays in force and the earliest MCPS could take possession of the building without significant penalty, would be in 2028, 18 years from now and perhaps longer.

    The significant costs in breaking the lease would be more than the cost to buy back the site under the agreed purchase agreement.

    This purchase agreement is a win-win-win for everyone involved.

  19. And you won! It's over! All done.
    The public never got to see the 3 appraisals and never got to see the documentation of community use. But no matter.

    30 days - record time for zipping something through Montgomery County. And the public hearing was held on the monthly MCCPTA night - that kept the pesky PTA people from discussing and voting on this at their monthly meeting.

    We will remember to tell the next group that contacts us about overcrowding that it is "illogical."

    MCPS is never getting this site back under any circumstances. To pretend that the property could be taken back without years and years of extensive litigation is absurd.

  20. Janis-the "option" is not a two-way option. It is an option given by the County to the school, so, it is up to the school as to whether to exercise the option...or not. It is not the "option" of the County to sell. Once the school says they want to buy, the the County actually must sell it.

    Perhaps you have not traded options in the stock market (or maybe you have), but in that situation, if I sell you an "option" to buy a stock at a specified price at a future date, then it is entirely up to you as to whether you want to buy it, but once I have given or sold or transferred the option, it is no longer up to me to determine what to do with it.

    The County gave the option to the school, so it's up to the school to decide if they want to buy it or not.

    Certainly the "unreasonably withheld" language muddies the water a bit, but you cannot say that, in the purest sense, once someone gives an option to the other person that the originator of the option can then determine that the option no longer applies.

  21. @Jer979 - That's hysterical! What contract are you reading? Please cite the page and paragraph.

    According to the contract you are reading there is NO reason for a Council vote or a Board of Public Works vote.

    I have no doubt there are various documents floating around, that would not be a first for the County.

  22. Janis--one more thing in reading your comments. I understand your anger and frustration, but I think it is misdirected.

    If you'll allow me....

    You can justifiably be upset with MCPS or the County for letting a school get so neglected that a lease/option was the only way out.

    You can be upset with them for making a contract that you think is strategically and financially unwise.

    You can (and we all should) demand accountability from our elected and administrative leaders.

    If you really think the contract was a mistake (and I bet you do), you should continue the noble effort to inform citizens and demand excellence. I, for one, support you on that.

    But, all of that notwithstanding, the County made an agreement. Stupid/short-sighted or not, just as you would expect your fellow citizens to back you up in asking the County to uphold its legal obligation to you, contracts are a cornerstone of our democracy, which is why the sale should go through.

  23. Cite the paragraph that says the County must sell the land. So far no one has been able to do that.

    Still waiting.

    And still waiting for the 3 appraisals.

    And documentation of public use.

  24. Something that hasn't been mentioned - what would happen if the Board of Public Works did not approve the sale?

    What in the contract forces the Board of Public Works to rubber stamp what is approved by the Council?

  25. Ms. Sartucci -
    I've just read your blog's discussion on this issue with great interest. On several occassions, you refer to kids in trailers (1:55pm, 4:37pm). Can you please provide me with the name and address of the public school nearest to the former Peary School which is utilizing trailers due to overcrowding? You seem to imply that there is a current need for the use of this facility as a public school due to the inflamatory reference of children getting sick from the use of trailers. I'd like to check out your assertions, so that I can make an informed decision on this matter. From what I have gathered from this dialogue as well as coverage in the news, Montgomery County has recently made an assessment and determined that there is no current nor anticipate future need for that school due to the current and trending demographics. So why the horror-reference to kids getting sick from mold? If the population shifts in 15 or 20 years, the County can proceed to repurchase the property. But until then, why shouldn't the County abide by the terms of its contact? Thank you. D Grayson

  26. Cite the "assessment" that you think exists. Thanks.

    Yes, it is horrible isn't it. Those of us who have had children in classroom trailers know how sick they can make children and teachers. The black mold that grows is gruesome. The number of kids that get sick is detrimental to learning.

    Bells Mill ES & Potomac ES was successful in getting classroom trailers replaced with "new ones" when their trailers were overrun with mold and rot. Other school communities aren't so lucky. We will put up the pictures that show the black mold growing all along the frame of the trailers removed from one elementary school.

    Bells Mill:

    Jury backs ill teacher:

  27. List of classroom trailers? It is linked right in the post above these comments.

  28. Looks like schools about 1 mile of Peary HS: Wheaton Woods ES has 6 classroom trailers, Brookhaven ES has 11 classroom trailers, Rock Creek Valley ES has 2 classroom trailers...just a quick scan of a map gives these locations.

  29. When it comes right down to it, the county made a deal in the 1990's to give the Academy a right to purchase Peary High School and set aside a formula to calculate the prices, based upon three appraisals. That formula was used to set the price. The Berman Academy would never have invested almost 9 Million Dollars in renovating what had become a drain on the community, without a belief that the county would live up to its contract. To address current concerns of the County School Board about potentially needing the land sometime in the distant future, the Berman Academy agreed to modify the agreement to allow the county to buy back the school if it is ever needed.

    With that concession, there is no reasonable basis for the County not to live up to its lease (contract) obligation and sell the School to the Berman Hebrew Academy. A contract is a contract. No other outcome is fair or reasonable.

  30. How does this "contract" bind the Maryland Board of Public Works to transfer public school land to a private entity?

  31. Sam, How do the county citizens who will end up paying millions more to get required downcounty property in the near future know that "almost 9 Million dollars" was spent to upgrade the academy? Does that include the money for the mikvah as well? Will you or someone who keeps the books be willing to post the records so we know that amount was spent?


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