This past Friday the Montgomery County School Board Policy Committee held a meeting to discuss a multitude of topics, one being the leasing of future school site property. Brickyard Educational Farm was piloted on one of many such sites last year. The programming will not be able to resume until the school board approves the revised policy, currently titled Management of Board of Education Property. This policy was once titled Disposition of Board of Education Property, but has been altered to include management as well. Apparently there was discussion about creating a separate policy for management but in the end revising the current policy was more time efficient.
The School Board members that sit on the committee are Shirley Brandman, Rebecca Smondrowski and Pat. O'Neill. The discussion was thourough and very thoughtful. The variety of sites and tenants that the school board has was fascinating to learn about. I would say that the overarching theme was, "what are best practices for continuing to lease land to community organizations and businesses that make reclaiming that land, once it is needed for educational purposes, easy on all parties involved.
Shirley Brandman shared concerns about how tenants on the property recieve notice when land needs to be reclaimed stating, "We want to be good landlords."James Song, the Director of the Department Facilities Management team for MCPS, assured her that every tenant is given a full 12 months notice when land needs to be reclaimed for school needs. Shirley went on to say that there may need to be language in the policy that addresses how the school board remains involved in the use of the property once it is leased to outside entities.
She did not refer specifically to the Brickyard Site here, but it is one example of the problem she is hoping to address. The School Board leased the Brickyard property to the County which then leased that same property to MSI. That decision, and the way it was carried out, reflected on the school board. In the future, if the language Shirley Brandman was requesting is added to the policy, the school board will continue to monitor and participate in land use arrangements after the initial lease. This would ensure that broader MCPS needs are being considered and that school board property is managed in a way which is more cost effective for the school system and the community.
Rebecca Smondrowski was concerned that a five year lease was potentially too long, considering the projected growth that Montgomery County is facing in the next several years. She also addressed the fact that the current language in Management of Board of Education Property gives the Superintendent of Schools the ability to make decisions regarding the leasing of school property, yet it is the School Board that has to answer for those decisions. She asked that School Board approval be added to the steps for any potentail leasing of school properties, as well as renewals of leases after 5 years or more.
Pat. O'Neill, along with Rebecca Smondowski shared concern over the low rent that is charged for most of the future school sites. James Song explained that the property is leased at prices that are fair to a given market depending on what the site will be used for. He referenced sites that have a prior school on them, that are currently being rented out as day care centers. To raise the rent at those sites would force many of those businesses out of business. Sites that are not developed such as the Brickyard site, are usually used for agricultural purposes, which has a much lower rental rate. Also given that the property can not be altered in any way that prohibits future educational use and that they are now considering granting more short term leases, charging considerably higher rent is much more difficult. James Song acknowledged that the rents are very low and that fair market value assessments will continue to be done for every new lease.
What I really took away from this meeting was that the School board has so many factors to consider when leasing property, first and foremost being the ability to reclaim the property for MCPS needs. Because of this I walked out feeling even more hopeful that Brickyard Educational Farm will be able to collaborate with the school system in the future. Our programming does not require building or major landscaping changes. Our programming would, by necessity, work closely with the School Board and broader MCPS needs as we continue to provide farm-based education to MCPS students.
I also learned there are 13 vacant school lots which the school board would like to lease, as long as they are easy to reclaim. This to me sounds like an incredible opportunity for collaboration. Who knows, Brickyard Educational Farm could collaborate with Joshua Starr and the School Board to get farm-based educational programming started up on multiple sites until MCPS needs them. Of course these sites don't have the potential for immediate use as educational farmland because they do not have the soil that makes the Brickyard site so unique. Thinking ahead though, we could work on that with cover crops and land stewardship through organic farming practices. The School Board could make a huge difference in the Chesapeake Watershed by leasing their property to sustainable organisations, such as ours!
To conclude, I am truly impressed by the three school board members that were present. They are doing all they can to ensure that future school sites are managed responsibly, in a way that contributes to local communities and the long term educational needs of MCPS.