Friday, September 18, 2015

Frustrated parents want better answers about schools ahead of Rock Spring development (Photos)

Residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the Rock Spring and White Flint 2 sector plan areas turned out in force last night for a meeting designed to begin a dialogue about how Montgomery County Public Schools can accommodate students generated by new residential growth in those areas. Elected officials, Montgomery County planners and MCPS long-range planner Bruce Crispell brought a lot of data, but attendees were not satisfied with the current policies that govern such school capacity decisions.
Councilmember Roger Berliner
delivers opening remarks
County Councilmember Roger Berliner gave brief remarks at the beginning of the meeting at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, but had to leave to chair a council committee meeting in Rockville. Two members of his staff remained at the meeting, however.

"We must have adequate public facilities," Berliner argued, "so your children are not sitting in closets, on stages" in overcrowded schools. In the downcounty area, Berliner noted, "we don't have the traditional [school construction] opportunities available to us," due to the already-built-out environment. He said every child should have "a great school that's not overcrowded. That's my commitment to you." Of the many county officials present to discuss the issue, Berliner said "I don't know if they'll have all the answers this evening - that's another reason I'm leaving," prompting chuckles from the not-so-happy crowd.

Other elected officials in attendance included Delegates Al Carr (D-District 17) and Marc Korman (D-District 16).

"This is an immensely important issue," County Planning Director Gwen Wright said. "Let's make this a positive, civil and informative evening that benefits all of us, especially the kids."

And it was a civil meeting, despite the tension and concerns about just what the future development in that part of Bethesda will be, and what strain it will put on the Walter Johnson school cluster in particular.

Area 2 Chief of Planning Glen Kreger acknowledged "people feel that schools are overcrowded. We've heard these things loud and clear."
Bruce Crispell discusses
projected enrollment and
capacity in the
Walter Johnson cluster
"Every school in this cluster is going to be touched in the coming years," Crispell promised of the school system's capital improvement plans through 2021. He provided current and projected capacity numbers for all schools in the WJ cluster. His projections show capacity open in each school by 2021, with the exception and uncertainty of Walter Johnson High School.

Many found the rosy numbers hard to believe. And perhaps with good reason. Wood Acres ES in Bethesda was entirely replaced with a new building last decade, and within a few years, already had 6 portables outside. MCPS has been off before in its predictions.

And as Crispell acknowledged to parents in a roundtable discussion later in the evening, the money isn't always there, and MCPS can't control that - it's up to the County Council and state to allocate the funds in the budget. One resident expressed skepticism about the money issue. "You're not getting the funds. You just told us that." "We're getting them," Crispell replied, just not as quickly as we would like."
Crispell leads a roundtable
One parent asked why the area wasn't under a development moratorium, given that the County requires one when capacity reaches 120%, and Ashburton ES is at 141% capacity right now. That's because MCPS "cheats", and conveniently allows more development to occur, by counting capacity by cluster averaging, rather than by individual school. Were capacity counted by school, the area would indeed be in moratorium now.

Many additions have either been completed, or are on the way, for WJ schools in the next few years. And, quibbles of accuracy aside, the numbers appear to show capacity added.

But that has brought another major concern to the fore. Even if MCPS can somehow handle the students being added, is there a point at which an individual school becomes too big, and students suffer as a result?
Delegate Al Carr
Delegate Carr suggested there is. He noted that the state of Maryland just completed a study that showed that "at a certain point, it is not optimal to make a school bigger." Carr said the report suggested that elementary schools, for example, should not be larger than 700 students. Ashburton is on the way to reaching 1000 in the next few years.

"I really worry what [higher student populations] means for extracurricular activities, and the stress level of students," one resident said. "At what point is a high school too big," he asked. "These schools are getting too big to properly teach our children," observed a second.

A father recounted his recent experience at Ashburton's Back-to-School Night. "As you walk in, you see the portables. The teacher tells you there is no more computer lab. The class has 29 students. This system that was so great that we moved here, what's going to be the classroom size? Is it going to be 30 students?"

Another parent warned officials that continuing down this road will destroy the reputation of MCPS as one of the top school systems in the region. "I can tell you right now, it's going downhill. It's going downhill."

Ashburton ES PTA President Laura Chace said "there are operational concerns that won't be addressed with a larger school. The kids are coming. They're already there. More are coming. We're behind the 8 ball. We're going to be at 1000 students, and there's no solution [in place] for us."

"The community does not believe making Ashburton huge is the solution," Chace told Crispell at the roundtable later. They also won't accept portables being added after an addition is completed, she said. Crispell said he wouldn't rule out MCPS reopening Grosvenor ES, although he said it would require modernization. Some Ashburton parents said they would welcome redistricting over the alternatives, but Crispell said he suspected not all parents might agree. But, he added, "if you have a unified position as the Ashburton community" on redistricting, reusing Grosvenor ES, or other options, to let County officials know that.

"Shame on them"

"Is anyone from the school board here," a resident asked during the comment period. "Raise your hand," she said. No hands were raised. "No one from the school board is here. Shame on them."

"Here's the frustration," another parent explained. "You guys are talking about a 10 year plan. Your plan is already behind schedule. Don't wait. They're coming. This is what we're trying to tell you."

An extraordinarily high number of transfers has also been complicating matters in recent years in the cluster. "Two years ago, we were over 20% transfers" one parent said of her child's school. "We've got a whole lot of them in this cluster."

Jordan Silverman, a recent MCPS graduate, gave a contrary view to the majority of those who spoke. He said every school he attended in the system had portables throughout his academic career, but he found it had no impact on the high quality of his education.
Pamela Dunn (at right), Acting Chief
of Functional Planning and Policy,
leads another roundtable discussion
A few issues seem to need serious discussion by County elected officials and all stakeholders.

Is it not clear that ultimately some new type of school fee has to be added for development, that - importantly - will be captured for the specific school cluster affected by that development, rather than going into the general pot? The City of Gaithersburg is discussing just such a funding mechanism right now.

When we talk about new, "non-orthodox" school models - such as office buildings, are we talking about a large office building property where parking lots provide room for the additional facilities needed at an ES beyond classrooms (which could work), or a building with none of the traditional facilities (which wouldn't')? And would parents outside of an urban area find an urban-style school acceptable?

And all the discussion of how there's no land available - and certainly no affordable land - in the already-developed downcounty area raises a question. What, in the opinion of planners, elected officials and the planning board, is the maximum number of residents an area like Bethesda can hold?

Can they give a specific figure? Do they literally believe that infinite growth is possible, much less sustainable? When every parking lot becomes a luxury apartment tower, where will this infinite growth occur? On top of single-family home residential neighborhoods? In the Agricultural Reserve? Along a Beltway converted into a 25 MPH "grand boulevard"?

Or is there a limit? And a point at which maintenance of the quality of life and education require existing residents to "pull up the ladder" to preserve the community? I would personally argue that there is.

I think that, outside, of edge cities like downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring (and even they have growth limits, to be realistic), this is a legitimate debate to be had. And one we must have.


Anonymous said...

The children in the WJ cluster are really lucky to have representatives like that in the PTA. The B-CC cluster does absolutely nothing for their families considering all the development downtown Bethesda and in Westbard.

Anonymous said...

Are there developed economies that grow without adding people?

Andrew said...

As an Ashburton parent I can't get over how we have all these former elementary schools that were closed as enrollment declined and now we never saw that changing in the future. In my immediate area we have Alta Vista, Grosvenor and Fernwood schools. These were obviously smaller, neighborhood schools serving the children of the baby boom. Alta Vista is now the Bethesda Country Day school which serves a great need for our community and I would hate to see it go - but it might have to. Fernwood is now a private school - so that can't be reopened. All we have is the Grosvenor school and to reopen it would mean years of renovation. This should start *yesterday*.

I don't think expanding elementary schools makes sense. A primary school should be an intimate setting focused on the children of the immediate community - not a sprawling campus for 1000 students.

Anonymous said...

"Do they literally believe that infinite growth is possible, much less sustainable?"

Do you understand what the word "infinite" actually means? Or even "literally"?

"[W]here will this infinite [there's that word again] growth occur? On top of single-family home residential neighborhoods?"

Yes. This is how cities across the world have evolved.

"Along a Beltway converted into a 25 MPH "grand boulevard"?

More idiotic hyperbole.

"I think that, outside, of edge cities like downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring"

Gotta love the hypocrisy here.

Robert Dyer said...

6:10: What's hypocritical? Rock Spring is not on a Metro line.

Glad you're admitting the plan is to bulldoze the existing residential neighborhoods. And then what? Go subterranean? Floating city? Build, build build.

Anonymous said...

All progress must stop once a nice rich, suburban neighborhood has been built. Perhaps you can add McMansion or two to add more rich suburbany goodness. Otherwise we must live with what was built for an infinite amount of time. The only growth that can happen is in the rural areas along freshly built highways that all lead to Dulles.

Jen said...

Thank you Robert for covering this meeting in such great detail for those of us who couldn't be there. Like Andrew who commented above, I feel frustrated that there are all these former elementary schools around us that are not being seriously considered for reopening.

As an Ashburton parent, I honestly don't care if my child is in a portable building or an older school facility, as long as he's able to learn without getting lost in the shuffle. Would I consider a school located in an office building? Sure. My son's preschool was in an office building (Rock Spring Children's Center) and it was awesome.

Ashburton is a good school and the teachers do an admirable job. The PTA is very active and committed. But the school is just too big and it's bursting at the seams. The first grade classes have 28 or 29 kids in them. They are having the librarian teach a reading class part-time because there are enough kids for an additional first grade class but they didn't get the funding to hire a new teacher.

The point that "the kids are already here" cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Ashburton isn't just going to reach 1,000 in the next few years, it could reach 1,000 THIS year. There are already 950. They have had to change the bus routes around already this year because the buses were overcrowded.

And this is happening NOW, before ground has even been broken on new houses in Rock Spring or WMAL.

I personally don't mind the new development. Bethesda is a nice place - let the people come. But we need more schools.

Anonymous said...

I grew up going to Wood Acres ES/Ashburton ES, North Bethesda MS, and WJ HS. I vaguely remember a portable or two at Ashburton my 5th grade year which would have 1997/98? So it sounds like Ashburton has been behind the 8 ball for a long time. However, when I entered middle school it was the inaugural reopening of North Bethesda MS and it had all the space and amenities. Then going to WJ for high school was the same thing - I entered just as they were completing their mass remodeling and expansion. My freshman year most of the school had been finished. There were still interior hallways, a few interior rooms, and random things like turning the old cafeteria into the new library (the new cafeteria was open and the old library was in use). All these things were finished over the winter and summer breaks so by sophomore year; it was fully completed.

Looking back I did not really enjoy Ashburton as it reminded me of something straight out of the 60's. Is the nurses office still in a back room next/tucked under the second floor staircase? I very much enjoyed North Bethesda and WJ - I had really good teachers and technology at hand.

Hearing about the new development is exciting and I encourage it as long as everything is planned out accordingly. Whatever happened to the land across from WJ that was supposed to be redeveloped into a high end town center like property? I remember hearing the developers discuss with WJ management about building a bridge over Rock Spring (or something to that effect) to allow students to safely cross over.

I also wonder with the new development coming to the Rock Spring office park and old radio towers off of Greentree Road. Are these developments going to be better thought out than the defunct one across from WJ? Why can't development happen on that land? Back when they were breaking ground what were the student enrollment projections back then? Have we surpassed or met those projections?

Anonymous said...

"And then what? Go subterranean? Floating city? Build, build build."

Still more ridiculous hyperbole. We're not anywhere close to being Shanghai. Or even Georgetown.

Anonymous said...

From what I heard Robert's main man Hogan has told schools to go suck an egg if they want capital funding from the state for new buildings or renovations during his administration. But at least we can drive over a bridge a bit cheaper!

Andrew said...

I just realized that I forgot Ayrlawn as another former elementary school in North Bethesda. That is also serving our community in a very important manner as a YMCA center. So the Wyngate/Ashburton once had 6 elementary schools and we are down to 2.

Peter said...

@Andrew: Part of the "problem" (if it can be called that) is that Grosvenor is being used as a holding school currently for other schools that are under reno. That said, if MCPS is going to re-open it for regular use, I'd think it would be faster to just demolish and build a new building there. That would at least allow for a much more efficient use of the property layout and build some extra future classroom space (our school is Beverly Farms and that is what they did. We have the old Georgetown Hill school close by but it is on long-term lease to Ivymount).

Frankly, for all the criticism hurled their way, I think MCPS is dealing OK with the crappy hand it has been dealt (not to say that it can't do better of course). I mean, we have the conflicting problems of general demographic shifts it can't control; not enough holding schools; need to refresh a large amount of outdated school stock; and all the issues revolving around the financing to do it all with. Yeah someone is gonna get screwed but I don't see how they can avoid that given the constraints.

Peter said...

BTW: the MCPS building master plan is at Helpful to know the bigger picture.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Robert for posting this great summary of the meeting. It's very informative and as usual you are covering issues that no other local outlets are doing. Silver Spring clusters are also very overcrowded but the PTAs appear powerless or are just not informed. The elementary, middle and HS levels are all at the required additional school payment level. Yet the residential developers in downtown Silver Spring are not required to pay any school impact fees or the additional school facility payment fee for being in clusters beyond 105% of capacity. They have been and continue to put up thousands of residential units but no commercial. Who's benefiting? Not our kids who are in portables. The planners and Councilmembers are failing us, letting developers off the hook but warning us they are going to increase our property taxes to pay for their failed policies.

Steve D. said...

The country wants to build at Rock Spring so much, let them build the needed schools there first before putting up more condos.