Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Downtown Bethesda’s school population expected to hold steady

New development is not likely to attract families with school-age children

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With more than 20 new apartment buildings and condominiums slated for downtown Bethesda over the next 10 years, the population is expected to rise significantly, but the number of school-age children will only grow slightly, according to school officials.

The focus of new housing being built in Bethesda’s 405-acre Central Business District — an area straddling Wisconsin Avenue and bounded by the National Institutes of Health to the north and Bradley Boulevard to the south — is high-density buildings and urban in design, according to Bruce Crispell, head of long-range planning for Montgomery County Public Schools. That type of building doesn’t lend itself to many families with children, he said.

‘‘I’m not saying there are no kids there,” Crispell said, ‘‘but I would say it’s a very small component.”

The entire downtown is within the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School cluster, and, at the elementary level, is predominantly served by Bethesda Elementary School.

According to Valerie Berton, spokeswoman for the Planning Board, 1,177 housing units have been approved in the business district and are slated for construction in upcoming years. Another 729 units were completed in the last four years.

The number of students living in the completed units is unknown.

Montgomery County Public Schools employs a formula to estimate how many students would be created by development. For every 100 apartments or condominiums built, MCPS estimates four new elementary students, four new middle school students and three new high school students.

The estimates vary greatly from those for single-family houses, according to county planners. For single-family houses in Bethesda, 35 new elementary students are created per 100 homes, 13 new middle school students, and nine new high school students.

‘‘Multi-family traditionally have less children per unit than single-family, detached homes or town houses,” said Judy Daniel, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission lead planner for Bethesda-Chevy Chase. ‘‘People are just less likely to raise their families here in apartments.”

This is good news for Bethesda Elementary School, which is already over capacity. With three portable classrooms already in place, the school is not slated for expansion until it is 92 students over capacity, Crispell said. It is currently slated to be 79 students over capacity by 2013, he said.

Westland Middle and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High schools would also be affected, but to a lesser degree, since a smaller pool of new students would be entering the larger schools.

Lisa Seymour, principal of Bethesda Elementary, said overcrowding is a problem, but not a drastic one yet.

‘‘Yes, our enrollment was higher than last year, but it’s not a huge concern yet,” she said. ‘‘I’m assuming [additional apartments and condominiums] would have an effect, but we have to wait until the spring to see.”

In the spring, Seymour said, parents new to the area often check out the school to determine whether to send their children there.

After that Seymour said she would have a better idea about whether the new development would have an effect.

Crispell said the school system keeps a sharp eye on development trends, and changes its growth estimates every year based on them.

‘‘This is the sort of school that’s on the watch list,” he said about Bethesda Elementary. ‘‘Every year we re-evaluate this, so next year if the estimates are higher, we may change our plans.”

The county, however, has already taken steps to limit school growth in the area, with its Annual Growth Policy, passed in November. The B-CC Cluster, along with eight other clusters across the county, is at a ‘‘school facility payment” level, which is designed to make developers pay for their possible contribution to the school population pool.

The Planning Board’s role in keeping school numbers adequate, they say, is fairly minimal.

‘‘This is something we depend on the public schools to answer,” said Pamela Dunn, a planner coordinator of research and technology for Park and Planning. ‘‘We tell them the amount of development that may be coming, and they say what the development will mean [for schools].”