Montgomery County school officials are changing the way they choose new school sites after "a huge amount of time spent, a lot of community angst involved, and a lot of conversations had over and over and over again" characterized its last search process, in the words of one lawmaker.
A work group for the schools is recommending that Montgomery County Public Schools move up its mandatory review of the feasibility of using public land to before the superintendent chooses his preferred site and recommends it to the county school board.
The schools also will include members of homeowners and civic associations in the neighborhoods surrounding potential new school sites. The group's deliberations will be open to the public.
Maryland's independent ethics board ruled that Montgomery's school board violated the state Open Meetings Act during the selection process for a new middle school for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster, which landed at Rock Creek Hills Local Park in Kensington.
"I'm not sure anyone feels good about how that went," said Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, D-at large.
The work group is pledging to comply with the Open Meetings Act, and many of the new changes were incorporated in the do-over of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase search.
"We had some lessons learned there," said Keith Levchenko, the County Council's senior legislative analyst.
County Council members told school officials that they still had frustrations, including whether the school board intentionally keeps residents in the dark while making decisions. Kensington residents said they were not given notice that their park was up for grabs, and many did not want to lose it.
"I understand that public input is going to be an integral part [of the changes]. It should have been an integral part all along, but I'm not here to bash or criticize you, so I'll try to avoid doing that," said Councilman Marc Elrich, D-at large. "I don't know why all of a sudden we've discovered the Maryland Open Meetings law. It's been in place for decades, and I don't know why it would be a sudden decision: 'Oh yes, we'll comply with the law, wouldn't that be something worth trying?' "
Christopher Barclay, vice president of the school board, said his colleagues meant "no cynicism or disrespect or disregard" for the law, but misunderstood which parts of the selection the laws applied to. For instance, Barclay said he thought it was acceptable to choose members of the advisory group in private.