by Cuneyt Dil
Current Newspapers correspondent
A late proposal to house Murch Elementary School students at Lafayette Elementary’s trailers during the modernization of the former has drummed enough controversy for one city agency to publicly shy away from the option.
D.C. Public Schools, which will decide by Jan. 12 where to house Murch students for the following two school years during construction, is weighing four options. The one that now seems most popular with parents is to build new trailers for Murch classrooms on fields at the University of the District of Columbia in Van Ness.
That’s also the proposal endorsed by the D.C. Department of General Services, which manages the city’s portfolio of government buildings. Others include installing trailers on the Murch campus during construction, installing trailers at a Forest Hills church and – most controversial – to use trailers already in place on Lafayette’s field.
That expansive – and expensive – setup was constructed to accommodate Lafayette’s own renovation, which is set to be completed this coming August. But many Chevy Chase community members said co-locating two large elementary schools in a quiet residential area would be dangerous and disruptive, and it would also deprive students and residents of open space for another two years.
Proximity of any temporary site to Murch is another key consideration. Swing space at UDC would be roughly 0.7 miles away from Murch and closer to a Metro station and bus lines than Lafayette, which is about 1.3 miles from Murch. Murch is located at 4810 36th St. NW, Lafayette is located at 5701 Broad Branch Road NW, and the UDC athletic field is located near the corner of Van Ness Street and International Court NW.
Many parents have warned that adding roughly 600 additional students from Murch to Lafayette’s campus would bring the traffic, infrastructure and logistical issues that come with effectively merging two schools at one site.
That the option is even on the table incensed Lafayette parents after the city assured them less than two years ago, when their renovation began, that the trailers would be removed from the school’s field by the 2016 school year.
Last week Ward 4 D.C. Council member Brandon Todd called the proposal to use Lafayette’s trailers “unacceptable.” And in an online community survey in Chevy Chase, 649 respondents, 89 percent, said they strongly oppose using that option.
“We find the safety risks are terrifying for both [groups of] kids,” one Lafayette parent said at a meeting last Thursday on the Murch project, emphasizing the potential increase in car traffic at the school.
The General Services Department agrees. “[Lafayette] is an option, but DGS has recommended this not be the option because of the safety concerns,” the agency’s Kenneth Diggs told more than a hundred residents at the Murch meeting.
The proposal has led to an at-times testy back-and-forth between Murch and Lafayette parents on Internet message boards, which Lafayette’s principal directly addressed at another public meeting on the topic last Tuesday.
“I think our biggest risk at this point as a community… is that we get sucked down the rabbit hole of Internet nastiness,” principal Carrie Broquard told over a hundred residents gathered at Lafayette last Tuesday. “I’m gonna be just real frank with you, nobody who is making this decision is monitoring anybody’s listserv or any [DC Urban Moms and Dads] site. So any posts that are posted there at this point are damaging communities.”
The $68.3 million project at Murch is slated to begin this summer and last roughly two years. Through multiple phases, the modernization will renovate the existing main building and construct an addition with a cafeteria and gym to hold 700 students.
In the interim, the top choice for the General Services Department — and many Murch parents — is building trailers over two soccer fields at the UDC’s Van Ness campus.
The two other options under consideration are keeping students on the Murch site in trailers, next to an active construction zone, or combining trailers with a shift of the pre-K and kindergarten classrooms to Capital Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church at 3150 Chesapeake St. NW.
“Of options under consideration, DGS suggests to DCPS that UDC would be the best option in terms of location, student drop-off [and pickup], space available for play/field use,” Diggs wrote in an email to The Current. “However, the [estimated] cost is an issue with respect to Murch’s overall project budget.”
That estimate for the UDC plan is $6 million, the highest among all four options and $1.5 million more than using Lafayette’s trailers. Another obstacle for the city would be the proximity of the swing space to several embassies in Van Ness. Diggs said conversations would need to be held with the U.S. State Department before moving forward.
The tight deadline for the city to decide on a path forward also worried parents at [the December 17th] Murch meeting, particularly that the timeframe allows less time to complete a traffic study for whichever swing space is selected.
“This is incredibly frustrating,” Ari Zentner, a Murch parent, told Diggs on [the 17th]. “You called us here to get our feedback and you don’t have anything close to complete answers.”
Diggs wrote in an email that while the decision may appear to be last-minute, the city reviewed over 15 potential sites over the last year, “and due to logical challenges, budgetary pressures, timeline coordination, or school-specific needs such as play spaces, most of these have been determined to not be suitable.”
Rejected sites included the Intelsat building at Van Ness, Fannie Mae’s headquarters, American University, art centers, churches and other places that all for a variety of reasons didn’t fit the project, according to Diggs. D.C. Public Schools criteria for the Murch swing space calls for 35 classrooms, parking, a gym, and room for a cafeteria and outdoor play, among other considerations.
At the Murch meeting, the UDC option was the most well-received, drawing applause from attendees. “This is a clear winner,” said one parent.
© Current Newspapers. Republished with permission from the December 23rd, 2015 issue of the Northwest Current. Download the newspaper here.