Montgomery County school officials will try again this month to convince the County Council that they need more flexibility in how they spend “school facility payments.” These are fees developers pay when they build in crowded areas of the county.
The school board is following the advice of its own staff and Superintendent Joshua P. Starr that the fees should apply “more broadly” in the county, not just in the school cluster or district where they are collected.
Council members denied the request when it came before them three years ago. They should change their mind this time around. And the reason is simple math.
The payments are pumped directly into capital projects as a way to ease crowding. As education reporter Jen Bondeson reported recently, about $163,000 was collected in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster and about $6,000 was collected in the area around Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. Even together, the amounts barely cover the cost of a heating-air conditioning-ventilation system upgrade or a new roof, let alone new classroom space or a modernized science lab.
Because the fees cannot pay for an entire project, they sit idle in a cluster accounts for years, until a project can be fully funded, said Larry Bowers, the school system’s chief operating officer.
Idle money does little good. The county should put it to work, and let it flow to the clusters that need it most.
Such a change will require remarkable accounting, however. Whitman parents might feel some satisfaction that their $6,000 supports a project across the county, but only if they know that Germantown fees, for example, flow into their school sometime in the future.
The county and the school system are brainy enough that together they can build accounting safeguards that will help ensure equitability across school clusters.
At least one County Council member, Valerie Ervin (D) of Silver Spring, says her position hasn’t changed. In a Gazette story, Ervin said: “It gives the school system full authority and full responsibility to determine in a subjective way where the funds get spent. I think that would be very difficult for the council to agree on that.”
And the school system will have to convince more than the County Council. Steve Augustino, co-chair of the school construction committee for the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, said he thought a change would give the school system too much flexibility.
“The purpose of the schools facility payment is as a means to alleviate the overcrowding in the clusters above the triggers,” he told Bondeson. “That is the purpose of the fund. We at MCC-PTA would oppose any policy that would divert the funds from this purpose.”
Starr obviously has his hands full in trying to sway the council and other parties on the matter. But with the right safeguards in place, school construction projects could be completed more efficiently and serve the areas where need is greatest.