Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Prospects bleak for GHS upgrade

Budget shortfall would delay modernization schedule by one year

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It is looking more and more like it may be too late for this year’s budget fight, but parents, alumni and students in the Gaithersburg schools cluster are not relenting in their fight for a new Gaithersburg High School.

On Thursday, the County Council is expected to push the decision on five high school modernizations to a budget wish list of unfunded projects the council can choose to include in the budget.

The plan delays the modernization Paint Branch, Gaithersburg, Seneca Valley and Wootton high schools by one year. Wheaton High School would be delayed two years, to be completed in August 2016.

The delay of all five high schools would save the county $119 million over six years, according to an analysis by County Council staffers.

Under the proposed plan, the new Gaithersburg High School would be ready in the fall of 2013 rather than 2012.

The delay pushes back the first major expenditure for Gaithersburg High — more than $30 million — to fiscal 2013, which begins July 1, 2012. By the end of fiscal 2014, delaying Gaithersburg High School by one year saves the county $4.7 million.

For years, parents at the 2,081-student school have lobbied county officials to get the project done.

That campaign reached a fever pitch this spring when County Executive Isiah Leggett’s proposed budget came up $75 million short of what the school system says it needs. Delaying the high school modernization schedule comes the closest of several recommendations to covering the difference.

‘‘The situation is dire. ... We want all the decision-makers to know that this community is extremely frustrated with the delay, and that we want to see action,” said Steve Augustino, said coordinator for the Gaithersburg schools cluster. ‘‘We want people to make a priority of high school modernization.”

Gaithersburg High is the school identified to be the most in need of replacing, according to an MCPS survey. The building is plagued with an infrastructure that is beyond repair, like the HVAC system that is so old that the school cannot find replacement parts, Augustino said. Secondly, the building has been added to in a piecemeal manner.

‘‘We’ve got hallways that are too narrow. We’ve got stairwells that don’t go anywhere,” he said. ‘‘We’ve got situations where literally we’ve got students who are in wheelchairs have to take three elevators to get between two classes.”

Parents, students and graduates sent the County Council hundreds of e-mails pleading their case. Among the e-mails are parents of elementary and middle school students pleading for the new building in time for their children; a recent alumna whose younger sibling was sent to private school rather than endure the decrepit conditions; and husband-and-wife alumni with children in the school reminiscing one parents’ night that the chemistry lab looks exactly as it did in the early 1970s.

It’s about more than just getting the school built.

‘‘[T]his effects everybody, even if you don’t have a child in Montgomery County schools. People are being told in the housing market, ‘Don’t buy this particular house because this one is in Gaithersburg [cluster].’”

The problem, said County Council President Michael J. Knapp, goes beyond the county’s budget woes to a shortfall in state funding.

The county has asked for an average of $128.4 million in state funding the last three years. Over that period, the state doled out an average of $40.9 million to MCPS, about 12.5 percent of the total given out to all county school systems in Maryland, said Knapp, whose district covers Gaithersburg and Seneca Valley high schools.

‘‘If everything stays the same [this year], we get $44 million,” said Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown. ‘‘Because we don’t have the money, we can’t build the schools.”