A community advocacy group on Friday called on the county government to fund a project to replace an aging Gaithersburg elementary school that families have said has “unacceptable” conditions.
Standing outside South Lake Elementary School, community members and Action in Montgomery members highlighted infrastructure and rodent problems, as well as serious overcrowding, as “dire” concerns.
Notably, they said, about 90% of South Lake’s students are minorities. Delaying the project, as was proposed earlier this year, sends a message that more affluent neighborhoods are more important, members of the group said.
Pastor Daniel Xisto of Takoma Park Seventh-day Adventist Church said that if the Montgomery County Council does not fund the project, “there are some hard truths that we have to reckon with.”
Those truths, he said, are that the county would be:
• “actively choosing to fund low-priority schools,” typically in predominantly white neighborhoods, over schools with the most needs
• rejecting the recommendation of the school board, which is the “subject matter expert”
• “perpetuating systemic disinvestment of a school that is predominantly Black and brown and filled with working immigrant families.”
“I’m astonished that they would feel this would go unnoticed in the midst of racial reckoning across the country,” Xisto said. “… We will hold them accountable with our words and ballots, if need be.”
In May, as the county grappled with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, the Montgomery County Council voted to delay several building projects, including South Lake. The council prioritized keeping projects that will increase capacity at high school buildings.
The action taken delayed the completion of the South Lake project one year, to 2024.
In August, the school board voted to accelerate the project one year, for a completion date in 2023, as complaints about the current building stack up.
The County Council must approve the acceleration of the project for it to happen.
The Council’s three-member Education and Culture Committee last month indicated its support for funding the project on the new timeline. But, the members said, it will take more work to find the money.
The committee is scheduled on Oct. 19 to have a more in-depth discussion about funding before making a recommendation to the full council.
The project includes tearing down the existing school, built in 1972, and replacing it with a new building.
During Friday’s press conference, former South Lake student Sarah Insa Sadio said she wants her younger siblings to “have a chance to learn and succeed like other students who live in wealthier parts of Montgomery County.”
Because the school has 14 relocatable classrooms to accommodate crowding, MCPS plans to soon pave over part of the school’s playground to make room for more parking.
Children in the relocatable classrooms often miss significant chunks of lessons if they have to trek to the main building to use the restroom, Insa Sadio said. It’s not fair, she said, and hurts students’ academic performance.
“Our school has been ignored for a long time,” she said.
Rabbi Mark Raphael demanded that the council distribute construction funds equitably.
“Fund the special appropriation so the 897 boys and girls of South Lake can walk through the doors of a new school by September 2023,” he said. “Prayer is powerful, but actions speak louder than words.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com