We need more classrooms. In Gaithersburg, two of our elementary schools are at more than 140% of capacity. Rachel Carson and Summit Hall have 10 portables each for extra classrooms. Summit Hall is scheduled to get 2 more in the Fall, and some of their “temporary” classrooms are 30 years old and now housing their second generation of students in the same portables.
How Did We Get In This Situation?
I analyzed the past ten years of MCPS Capital Improvement Plans (CIPs). For some of our schools, growth is being underestimated every year. This is true for elementary schools overall, too. As the school population grows, and as this growth is not being projected correctly, we end up with overcrowding. It’s not clear that we would get enough funding to build all the schools we need, but if we don’t ask for enough it can’t possibly happen.
The three graphs here are for MCPS elementary schools as a whole and for our two most overcrowded schools, Rachel Carson and Summit Hall. The thick line is the actual student enrollment, and the thin lines are each year’s projections. The pattern is clear – each year, MCPS projects enrollment flattening out, and each year it continues to grow.
Why is this? It’s not development – there has been no development near either of our schools in recent years. My guess is that these schools provide the kind of nurturing environment that parents want for their kids, so more families with school-age children move into those districts than MCPS expects. It’s the price of success.
There are other factors. According to Council Member Cathy Drzyzgula, “Part of overcrowding is also because people are staying in the same home after having children where traditionally they would have moved to a bigger home and/or less urban area. The number of children per unit has grown. This is particularly true in townhouses and apartments, but in Kentlands it probably applies to all size homes because the people who chose to move there value urban living.”
To Make Matters Worse
Our state has a system where school districts are very independent – they make their own decisions and propose their own budgets, but they are not the ones providing their funding. Funding comes from the county, and the county receives some of that funding from the state. The county is not permitted, by law, to spend less per student than in prior years (this is the “Maintenance of Effort” requirement) – if they spend less, the amount of state funding to the county is reduced and sent directly to MCPS. So the county is in a box – more than half of the county budget goes to MCPS, which makes its own decisions on spending.
This is a major issue and is approaching the crisis stage. The county updates its CIP in even-numbered years, so we need to let MCPS and the county know where our needs are. Every elected official in the city, county, school board, and state legislature is very aware of this issue and looking for solutions.
Roger Berliner of the county council recently hosted a conference to bring people together to discuss critical infrastructure needs and school construction was clearly the #1 issue. A number of creative approaches were presented, and the possibility of building different types of schools was eye-opening. We need to move past the concept of all schools designed to the old plan – 12 acres for elementary schools, 20 for middle and 30 for high schools – since we don’t have many plots of land that happen to be empty. Should we build new schools to a different plan?
There is a lot of empty office space – can we use office buildings for classroom space? Alexandria Virginia has used this kind of creative thinking to reduce costs for adding classrooms and it’s working – we need to get there in Montgomery County, too.
How Does This Get Paid For?
I worry about an attitude that has been expressed at the infrastructure meeting and that I’ve heard from some of our officials as well – we are a wealthy county and we should just raise more money from taxes. This, despite the fact that we have one of the higher tax rates in the country.
Here is how I view the issue. If you were running a growing business, the best way to fuel growth is to reinvest your profits. A business that pays dividends is reducing its investment in its own growth. At the government level, the balance is between investing in infrastructure and spending on services. The latter is like paying dividends, and infrastructure is like reinvesting in growth.
The key is to strike the right balance. You can’t just keep taking money out of investments and increase dividends and expect growth to continue. We need to take a hard look at the balance and make sure we are not short-changing our future by over-spending in services today. We need to put more money into our schools and transportation needs to facilitate growth.
And MCPS needs to look at how it spends its budget. There seems to be more money going into administrative costs over time when there is an enormous need for capital investment. MCPS cannot expect to keep receiving extra funding from the state each year – it needs to accept the need for re-prioritizing its own budget to meet the needs of our children.
This is an issue that goes well beyond Gaithersburg – I will work with the County, the State, and MCPS to work toward a solution that works for our children.