Montgomery school board nixes some capital project delays -- Gazette.Net


Montgomery County students and staff in five middle and high schools may not face delays to construction projects after all.

The Montgomery County Board of Education decided Monday not to delay revitalization and expansion projects at two high schools and three middle schools.

The board voted Monday to approve a $1.74 billion Capital Improvements Program budget for fiscal years 2015 through 2020 — compared to Superintendent Joshua P. Starr’s proposed $1.55 billion budget, which was based on holding off on some projects.

The board added a total of about $192.6 million to Starr’s proposed figure.

The board’s capital improvements program budget is about $376.5 million more than the current program, which covers fiscal years 2013 to 2018.

The budget now moves to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and the County Council for their approval.

The decision to keep the five schools’ projects on track added about $172 million to the budget.

The board kept Starr’s recommendation to delay 15 elementary school revitalization and projects by one year.

The two high schools with projects back on their previous schedules are Wootton in Rockville and Poolesville. The middle schools back on track are Farquhar in Olney, Tilden in North Bethesda and Eastern in Silver Spring.

At two public hearings held before the board last week, advocates lobbied for the needs of their school buildings, which they they described as aging, deteriorating, overcrowded and unsafe.

School board Vice President Phil Kauffman offered the amendment to Starr’s proposal that the five secondary schools remain on their previously approved schedules. The board approved the amendment unanimously.

Kauffman said he looked at several recent capital improvements cycles and noted the public hearing testimony from the school communities.

“These projects have been delayed time and time and time again,” he said.

The school system has recently seen the majority of its growth in its elementary schools; that “surge” of students soon will move to the middle and high school levels, Kauffman said.

School board member Patricia O’Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda said it’s difficult to get more state funding, but it’s more important for the school system to plan ahead.

“We’re in a unique situation here in the county and I think we have to do everything we can to keep the secondary rev/ex (revitalization and expansion) projects on track,” she said.

Starr said his proposed budget is “a reasonable stretch for the county” and that by reversing the delays, the board would add money the school system will need to request from the county and the state.

“This pushes them a little further,” he said.

Starr has said the school system needs $2.2 billion to cover all of its capital improvement needs for the six-year period. He proposed a $1.55 billion program, he said, because the county is currently facing “fiscal restraints” and the school system is not getting the funding it deserves from the state.

County legislators recently said they are planning to seek more school funding from the state.

Starr previously said he prioritized adding classroom capacity in his proposed budget.

Farquhar Middle School Principal Diane Morris said Tuesday that a new building for the school is “super exciting.” Without the delay, the building is slated to be finished in 2016.

“This is awesome news,” Morris said of the board’s decision.

The school community, however, had been prepared to support the board’s decision even with the delay, she said.

“It’s the people that make the school, not the building,” she said.

Poolesville High School Principal Deena Levine said the school community is pleased with the board’s decision, but is prepared to continue advocating for funding with the County Council and in Annapolis.

“They know it’s a step in the process,” Levine said.

The board made other changes to Starr’s budget proposal.

Barclay offered an amendment — which also passed unanimously — to add about $16.6 million to the budget for a revitalization project for the Blair G. Ewing Center in Rockville, which houses alternative programs in the school system.

Barclay said he thinks the board should look at the center as a priority.

“These are young peoples who have become very disengaged in education in many cases and the facility will hopefully help that process for the young students in the program,” he said.

The school board also approved a service area for a new Clarksburg elementary school with an amendment that slightly changed which areas are assigned to each of the area’s elementary schools. The new elementary school will join Cedar Grove and Little Bennett elementary schools in the area.

The board also approved two elementary school capacity studies. One is for the lower portion of the Downcounty Consortium, to which it added six schools that are paired with another school. The second is for the Gaithersburg cluster.

Another approved study will look into whether the school system should assign students living in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to Bethesda Elementary School.

New Hampshire Estates and Oak View elementary schools in Silver Spring will remain paired, though some in the schools’ community had expressed interest in creating two, full elementary schools. The board agreed with Starr’s recommendation to keep students in pre-kindergarten through second grade at New Hampshire Estates and third through fifth grades at Oak View.

The capital improvements budget also includes 14 new classroom additions, which Starr said he included in his proposal to address the school system’s ongoing, significant enrollment growth.

The plan maintains schedules for other, previously approved capacity projects, including various addition projects and five new schools.

About $283 million in the program is directed toward systemic projects that include security upgrades and HVAC, roof and door replacements.

Both public hearings before the school board drew large numbers of speakers from around the county who spoke passionately about overcrowded classrooms and aging buildings with leaking roofs, broken HVAC systems, mold and cockroaches.

Melissa McKenna, president of Maryvale Elementary School’s parent teacher association, said at the second public hearing that her school had not been modernized since it was built in 1969. It was built with larger, middle school kids in mind rather than its current, smaller occupants, McKenna said.

Maryvale is among the 15 elementary schools where revitalization and expansion projects are delayed a year under the school board’s program budget.

McKenna, who was joined by others who testified on Maryvale’s needs, brought a pair of boxing gloves up with her to the podium.

“This is a fight and we are here to give it our all,” she said.