Moving A Big Needle

One of the most common hindrances to community involvement is cynicism: what sort of change can really be made in society and what are the chances we can pull it off?  What good are our small efforts?

Lots.  Exhibit A: Neelsville Middle School.

Mothballed years ago when Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School moved to the other side of Germantown, the current building at 11700 Neelsville Church Road was never intended to hold classes long-term.  With tiny windows, small hallways, few bathrooms, and an awkward hard-to-use atrium in its entrance, in 2015 it was deemed inadequate for the 900+ students attending there.  For this reason, architectural designs were created for a new building.  Within a few years, they were scrapped as competing MCPS priorities moved them to the ‘future projects’ list.

In 2018, the parent of an 8th grader became president of the PTSA.  She pulled a team together and went to the principal asking for a list of things they could do to support the school.  The list came back with one bullet point and one only: a new facility.

The president and her team went to the MCPS Department of Construction and asked for a new building.  That department told the team that it was up to the School Board which met in November.  They went to the school board with letters from parents in hand.  Two students got up and gave testimonies before the board.

The school board was responsive but said that ultimately this would be up to the County to approve the funds.  The following February, that same team gathered community members and went to the County meeting with the same message: our school facility is in no way suitable for learning for our kids.

A year had come and gone but a new school still was not promised.  Members of that same team kept at it.  At the 2019 Board meeting, they were back with more parents, more signage, and more angst, reiterating the desperate need for a long-overdue replacement to what was being dubbed “The Prison on a Hill.”  They approached Board members, Council members, and the Superintendent with their message.  Finally, the project made its way onto the coveted “Capital Improvement Fund” list as an approved project.  The proposed completion date: Sept. 2024.

Then came COVID.  This was a perfect excuse to punt a good project down the road with the excuse of funds diverted or construction timelines delayed.  But the good folks at MCPS, believing that this was a project worth keeping at the top of the list, persevered.  By the fall of 2021, architects were talking to community members, bids for the general contractor were being submitted, and the School Board was getting excited about a whole new look at the Neelsville property.

But when you’re talking about a $70 million project, there are never guarantees.  Budget shortfalls and the skyrocketing cost of construction materials during the pandemic threatened the timeline of this project once more.  The PTSA and Administration knew that even a one or two-year delay could easily turn into 5 or 10 years; with delay after delay since 2015, this was simply unacceptable.  Back to the School Board and County Council meetings went the team, vocally insisting that this new facility arrive on time as per their original promise of Sept. 2024.

With the Board, the Council, the PTSA, the School Administration, and the community all lined up behind this project, after a year of ground testing, architectural modifications, and mostly waiting for permits, ground finally broke in August of 2022 on the construction.  It was two years out from the deadline.  Would it be on time?

Last week, all the structural beams were put in place; the skeleton is up, the crane will come down, and the interior of the new Neelsville Middle School will begin.  And the scheduled completion date according to the contractor?  September 2024!

The new school building will be covered in windows, huge hallways, adequate space, a courtyard, a garden on the roof, and panoramic views of upper Montgomery County from the 3rd floor!

Big changes can happen.  Major reform is possible.  Things don’t have to be the way they are now.

What would you like to see change in our community?



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