Manor Lake Civic Association, Allied Civic Group and Aspen Hill Civic Association are joining forces to express their outrage at Superintendent Paul L. Vance's proposal to permanently transfer students from Parkland Middle School in Aspen Hill to the dilapidated Belt Junior High School building in Wheaton. Belt has been closed since 1983.
"We have no choice," said Aspen Hill Civic Association President Judy Tankersley of their decision to fight the Board of Education. "It's such a bad idea. It's such a horrendous situation for our community."
Edward Milenky, who serves as both the president of Manor Lake and the vice president of Allied Civic, agrees.
"We're afraid we'll be stuck with another derelict building like Peary [High School]," Milenky said.
Robert E. Peary High School in Aspen Hill was closed in 1984 and its 1,700 students were transferred to Wheaton High School. It has been a topic of controversy for residents who wonder why the site is still vacant.
The Aspen Hill community over the years has also witnessed Aspen Hill and English Manor elementary schools become vacant and their ownership transferred back to the county, Milenky said.
The concern about losing Parkland began when the school board adopted a 1999 capital budget proposal in November under which Belt, located at Goodhill and Weller roads off Connecticut Avenue in Wheaton, would be modernized and then reopened in 2001.
Parkland, located on West Frankfort Drive in Aspen Hill, would also reopen in 2001, but as a holding school, for use when other schools are being modernized.
Belt's ownership was transferred from the school system to the county in January 1985, and the school has been leased to an international religious school which could lose its lease if it continues to make hesitant leeway in restoring the building.
The County Council must choose next month whether to approve the project and provide funding for it to be implemented. The transfer to Belt is part of Vance's plan to pick up the pace of modernization for schools by creating more holding facilities.
The civic groups are hoping the board will move to reconsider its decision before the County Council reviews the proposal at a Feb. 5 hearing, Milenky said.
County Councilman Michael Subin (D-At large) of Gaithersburg, chair of the council's education committee, said Monday that he intends to keep Vance's accelerated modernization plan and the controversy surrounding Parkland and Belt separate during the Feb. 5 council proceedings.
Subin said that while accelerated modernization in general does need to go forward, the specific situation of switching Parkland and Belt schools requires deeper consideration.
Subin questioned spending the money to essentially rebuild Belt Junior High because of its poor condition. He also said removing Parkland from Aspen Hill concerns him.
"It doesn't make any sense at all, and I don't know if it's going to be cost-effective," Subin said. "Parkland's an important part of the community."
Subin criticized the idea of taking away such a community asset, and added that possibly demolishing Belt and turning the site into a park could make more sense.
"I have a lot of questions and a lot of problems [with the Parkland situation]," Subin said.
Civic leaders are worried that losing Parkland as a permanent school would not only bring unnecessary holding facility traffic to the quiet suburban setting surrounding Parkland, but would hurt the neighborhood in general.
"[Parkland's] always been here, it's widely respected," Milenky said. "Move the school, and [residents] will move their children."
Tankersley and Milenky also agree that the school's lack of accessibility is not suited to the amount of traffic that will visit a holding facility.
"Parkland is physically unsuitable to be a holding school," Milenky wrote in a Jan. 12 letter to Board of Education member Mona Signer. "It is located in the center of a dense network of local streets. The site does not have enough parking for the traffic that holding schools inevitably generate."
The Aspen Hill community has argued that Belt, which has close access to Connecticut Avenue, makes more sense as the holding school and would allow Wheaton residents to finally have their empty school occupied, as well as allow Aspen Hill to keep Parkland the way it is.
The Connecticut Avenue Greenwood Knolls Citizens Association in Wheaton was relieved to hear of Vance's proposal, but were also concerned and sympathetic to the situation that would now face Aspen Hill.
"We certainly sympathize with them -- we don't want Parkland closed," said Frank Vrataric, treasurer for the Connecticut Avenue Greenwood Knolls civic group. "But that's not our decision to make."
Vrataric said that the civic organization currently supports the superintendent's budget to renovate Belt and make it a primary middle school for their area.
School board members Signer and Blair Ewing have said that it is difficult to take a position on reconsidering the issue at this time, especially since County Executive Douglas M. Duncan recently revealed that he did not recommend accepting Vance's proposal to accelerate modernization when he did not include the plan in his recently released $1.32 billion capital budget.
Until the County Council ultimately decides what projects will be funded in the upcoming hearings, the fate of Vance's proposal is uncertain.
"It's all up in the air at this point," Signer said.
Ewing said he plans to talk with his colleagues on the board and with the superintendent to examine the implications being pointed out by the Aspen Hill civic organizations.