|Councilmember Roger Berliner|
delivers opening remarks
"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
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|
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|
"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.
"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
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.