All posts by Adam Pagnucco

Riemer vs Elrich on Solar in the Ag Reserve

By Adam Pagnucco.

The extent to which solar panels should be allowed in the agricultural reserve was a big issue this week. Council Member Hans Riemer, one of the lead sponsors of legislation to do so, and County Executive Marc Elrich, who favors less capacity than Riemer, both issued statements this week which we reprint below. For background, you can refer to Bethesda Beat’s account of the county council’s decision on the issue, my column on its context and Delegate Kumar Barve’s letter to the council about the legislation.

First, let’s consider what Riemer had to say in his blast email of February 24.

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Why I Voted No

When I introduced the “farm + solar” zoning change with Council President Tom Hucker back in January 2020, my goal was to build a cornerstone of Montgomery County’s climate action policy.

By allowing less than 2% of the land in the County zoned “Agricultural Reserve” (which is itself one-third of all land in the County) to be used for privately funded community solar projects, the proposal would have generated enough clean energy to power more than 50,000 homes, while continuing agricultural practices on that land.

Regrettably, with opposition fueled by the County Executive, a majority of Councilmembers adopted two amendments to ZTA 20-01 that are so restrictive that the proposal may result in very little if any solar.

As a result, I voted “no,” because I am concerned that rather than a small step forward for Montgomery County, it may be a large step backward for Maryland. Consider these words from Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which along with the Sierra Club and Poolesville Green strongly supported the original plan:

Clean energy has to go somewhere. If liberal Montgomery County can’t reach a sensible compromise policy, imagine the push back from Republican county and state elected leaders who think climate change is a hoax anyway.

We should be leading. Our county has adopted climate goals. We declared a “climate emergency.” We have conducted studies on how to reduce our carbon footprint. At the end of the day though, the only way to make a difference is to make policy changes, and changes will require disruption to the status quo.

Yes, many incumbent farmers and preservationists were opposed, due to impacts on their business models (shifting from commodity crops to agrivoltaics, solar grazing, or pollinator-friendly habitats on that portion of land) or a perceived threat that allowing solar is a step to allowing residential or other development (just a fear, not a reality).

There are reasonable questions about how we transition to a clean energy economy. One idea I offered was to use tax revenue from solar arrays to support additional agricultural preservation, grants to help small farmers purchase or lease land, and funds to support agrivoltaic and solar grazing. Nevertheless, under this plan, farming would continue, the Reserve would endure. Frankly not much would seem all that different but we would have made a huge impact on our carbon emissions.

Other choices that we have before us are far more costly, either financially to taxpayers or to businesses or homeowners. This is one of a very few ideas that does not actually require County funds — in fact it would generate millions in new county revenue that could be devoted to the climate agenda while creating new clean energy and solar grazing jobs.

Some of the important points to remember about this proposal include:

  1. Solar fields would have been limited each to 2MW in power generation, about 10-15 acres per property maximum (in contrast to portrayals of “industrial solar”)
  2. Total acreage allowed would have been limited to 1,800 out of the 100,000+ acre reserve, which itself is one-third of all land in the County
  3. Grazing sheep on pollinator-friendly plants beneath the arrays was encouraged and could have been incentivized with new tax revenue from the solar arrays
  4. Solar grazing and agrivoltaics would increase local food production in the Reserve — less than 1% of the land in the Agricultural Reserve today is farmed for fruits and vegetables destined for local farmers markets
  5. Rooftop and parking lot solar, while important, is significantly more expensive than ground-mounted or terrestrial solar fields, which is why you don’t see enough of it
  6. There is nothing more important to saving the climate than creating cheap clean energy
  7. By only allowing “community solar” installations on the land, energy companies taking advantage of the program would be required to offer discounted energy subscriptions to low income residents

The Council majority acknowledged that they are not sure if their proposal will result in new solar projects and that we should return to the topic in two years to evaluate progress.

In that respect, while I am disappointed in the final vote, I am also grateful that we have now opened up the possibility of farms providing community solar (which was previously entirely prohibited; now is mostly prohibited) and I am committed to growing that potential in the future as a necessary public benefit from our Agricultural Reserve.

In the meantime, while it is clear that the original proposal has overwhelming support from voters, we need to build grassroots support, and in particular, we need to educate residents about the primacy of clean energy and the social justice value of community solar.

To be continued.

Sincerely,
Hans

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Now let’s consider Elrich’s statement, issued on February 25.

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Dear Friends:

The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday voted to adopt changes to the County zoning code that will provide opportunities for locating solar collection systems in the Agricultural Reserve. I extend my thanks to the seven Councilmembers who found common ground that allows for community solar projects while protecting our agricultural resources.

Zoning Text Amendment 20-01 strikes the right balance between the need for renewable energy and the equally important need to protect the Agricultural Reserve’s unique and vital contributions to local food production, clean water and carbon sequestration.

The new standards allow solar collection systems generating up to two megawatts of power as a conditional use on the lesser productive soils in the Ag Reserve. Other provisions protect streams, wetlands, steep slopes greater than 15 percent and forests.

In addition, the areas under the arrays must be used for farming or agricultural purposes. Examples include pollinator-friendly designation, agrivoltaic plantings or crops suitable for grazing farm animals. Another significant change affects property owners who install smaller solar systems to serve their individual energy needs, increasing the amount of on-site energy they can produce from 120 to 200 percent.

The County Council also mandated a formal review process to assess the outcomes of these changes in two years. This will give us the opportunity to observe whether and how this experiment will work, especially regarding the emerging field of agrivoltaics, which focuses on the co-development of land for both solar power and agriculture.

In the meantime, my administration continues to prioritize increased solar energy production in innovative ways. For example, we are currently planning the installation of a six-megawatt array on the County-owned site of an old landfill. We also are looking at ways to incentivize solar projects on existing parking lots and buildings elsewhere throughout the County. These types of projects are essential to our efforts to address climate change through clean energy solutions.

I deeply appreciate the work of all those involved in this year-long review, most especially members of, and advocates for, the farming community and Executive Department staff members. The Ag Reserve, established by prescient County leaders more than 40 years ago, is recognized as a national model of farmland and open space preservation. Its importance and significance grow with each passing year as we witness the effects of climate change on our food and water supplies. The legislation adopted by County Council embodies the need for protecting this resource while allowing us to see whether agriculture and solar systems can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way in Montgomery County.

Marc Elrich
County Executive

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Why Are Average Wages Increasing During the Pandemic? Part Three

By Adam Pagnucco.

In Part Two, we identified one reason why average wages have been rising during the COVID recession: job losses have been concentrated in the leisure and hospitality sector. Since that sector pays low wages, disproportionate job losses there tend to push average wage rates up.

But that’s not all that is going on.

The chart below shows changes in average hourly earnings by sector in Maryland. Most sectors are seeing substantial increases, with some beating the 1.4% change in the consumer price index in 2020 by several multiples.

The craziest finding in that chart is that leisure and hospitality, which had by far the biggest job loss in 2020, also had the largest increase in average hourly earnings. That violates every lesson in supply and demand taught in Economics 101. An industry with precipitous job losses should have a big drop in wages. Why is the opposite happening?

Let’s take a closer look at Maryland’s leisure and hospitality sector. The chart below shows employment (on the left axis) and average hourly earnings (on the right axis) in leisure and hospitality since 1990. (Average hourly earnings are only available starting in 2007.) For the most part, this is what we would expect to see. Employment has grown with interruptions in the early 1990s recession, the Great Recession and the COVID recession. Average hourly earnings fell during the Great Recession and recovered afterwards. So far, so good.

Now let’s zero in on the last two years. The chart below shows the monthly employment in the sector for both 2019 and 2020. (Data for December 2020 is preliminary.)

In the first two months of 2020, Maryland’s leisure and hospitality sector was on pace to have 2-3% more jobs than in 2019. Then the pandemic hit and in April 2020, employment was 47% less than in April 2019. The sector recovered somewhat though it did not enjoy the summer bump that it normally gets. By November and December, when COVID case rates began to rise again, the sector began losing jobs again. Overall, its employment in 2020 seems tied to public health restrictions and consumer behavior tied to the virus.

Now let’s look at monthly average hourly earnings in the sector in 2019 and 2020.

The massive job loss in April coincided with a massive spike in average hourly earnings. The smaller job loss in the last two months of the year coincided with a smaller spike in average hourly earnings. At first glance, this doesn’t seem to make much sense if you remember supply and demand from Economics 101.

But it might make sense depending on who gets laid off. The leisure and hospitality sector, like other sectors, has wide variations between employees in skill, seniority and responsibility – all of which tend to be associated with pay differentials. What if the workers who were laid off in April and in the winter were disproportionately low tenure, less skilled and non-supervisory? And what if the workers who were protected were disproportionately highly skilled, high tenure, supervisory and critical to their employers? That would explain the pattern in leisure and hospitality and in the other sectors too: job losses coincide with average hourly earnings spikes because lower paid workers are the ones being let go, thus skewing the wage distribution upwards.

This coincides with findings cited by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that job losses have been “strongly concentrated among low-wage workers,” including hospitality workers, young workers, less educated workers and part-time workers. One article finds that “the pandemic’s negative economic effects are most severe and likely to be longest lasting for low-paid workers in more affluent locations.” That’s a good description of the realities faced by many recession-impacted workers in Maryland, who are hit both by job losses and high costs of living. Think of how this applies to a laid-off restaurant employee in Montgomery, Howard or Anne Arundel counties.

If this theory is true, then the rising average wages during the COVID recession are not a sign of prosperity – they’re a sign of rampant, increasing income inequality. In Part Four, we will see how this is playing out in some locations in Maryland.

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Why Are Average Wages Increasing During the Pandemic? Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

In Part One, we recited a central lesson from Economics 101: wages are prices affected by supply and demand for labor. In prior recessions, wages either stagnated or fell – a result we would expect as jobs declined and hiring opportunities fell short of available workers. However, the COVID recession has seen one of the biggest average wage increases in the last half century.

Why?

One key to understanding this is to examine how the COVID recession has impacted specific industries. The chart below shows the decline in employment from 2019 to 2020 by industrial sector in Maryland. (Data for December 2020 is preliminary, which may have a minimal impact on the final results due from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in a month or two.)

Every industrial sector in Maryland has lost jobs in 2020 except for mining, logging and construction, which actually grew by 2%. This sector is dominated by construction and employers in that industry were likely building a lot of projects that were approved before the pandemic or in its early stages. The sector that took the biggest hit by far was leisure and hospitality, which is comprised of hotels, motels, restaurants, bars, casinos, museums, performing arts, sports and related industries. That makes sense. These industries were among the most affected by health restrictions and they have suffered mightily from declines in travel and tourism.

Now let’s look at the average hourly earnings in these sectors in 2020.

Leisure and hospitality, which had by far the biggest job hit, was also the lowest paying sector in Maryland. When the lowest paying sector loses the greatest percentage of jobs, it skews the overall distribution of wages upward, thereby increasing the average. Also contributing to this skew is that financial activities and professional and business services, the two highest paying sectors, had below average rates of job loss. The jobs that are being lost are disproportionately in lower paying industries. That’s one reason why average wages are rising in the COVID recession unlike in earlier recessions.

But industrial impact is not the only factor behind what’s going on. We will have more in Part Three.

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Myth Buster: Grocery Store Alcohol Sales Will Not Destroy Package Stores

By Adam Pagnucco.

For many years, most grocery stores in Montgomery County have not been allowed to sell beer and wine, a prohibition designed to protect package stores. Most other counties in Maryland have similar rules, all set down in state law. Delegate Lily Qi has introduced a state bill loosening such restrictions, one of many efforts over the years to allow grocery stores to sell beer and wine. When the county council met to consider whether to support Qi’s bill, some council members expressed concern that it would harm small beer and wine stores. After all, if consumers could purchase beer and wine at a grocery store along with food, how could package stores compete with that?

In fact, the allegation that grocery stores would put package stores out of business if they could sell alcohol is a myth. Why do I say that?

Because there are a few grocery stores in MoCo that are allowed to sell beer and wine and package stores operate near them.

Consider the following six MoCo grocery stores that have off premise liquor licenses. Look at the maps below to see how close they are to package stores. Both the grocery stores and the package stores appear in purple ovals.

Giant Supermarket, 11221 New Hampshire Ave, Silver Spring

White Oak Convenience Store, which has an off-premise liquor license, is directly behind the only Giant in the county that is allowed to sell liquor.

Safeway Supermarket, 3333 Spartan Rd, Olney

Young Gourmet Beer and Wine, which has an off-premise license, is just a few blocks away from the only Safeway in the county that is allowed to sell liquor. Brew Belly and Olney Beer and Wine, which can sell alcohol both on premise and off, are also nearby.

Bestway Supermarket, 8540 Piney Branch Rd, Silver Spring

Flower Deli, which has an off premise license, is right around the corner from Bestway. Long Branch Beer and Wine is just a few blocks to the east.

Sniders Super Foods, 1936 Seminary Rd, Silver Spring

Sniders is within walking distance of two package stores: Seminary Beer and Wine and Spring Beer and Wine.

Dawson’s Market, 225 N. Washington St, Rockville

Dawson’s is within walking distance of Tiger Beer, Wine and Deli, which has an off premise license.

Shalom Kosher, 1361 Lamberton Dr, Silver Spring

Shalom Kosher is within footsteps of Kemp Mill Beer, Wine and Deli. The Google photo below shows just how close the grocery store is to the beer and wine store.

The allegation that allowing grocery stores to sell beer and wine will put package stores out of business is a MYTH. And now this myth is BUSTED.

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Why Are Average Wages Increasing During the Pandemic? Part One

By Adam Pagnucco.

Every college student taking Economics 101 learns about how supply and demand interact to set market prices. Wages are prices set in labor markets. When growth in demand for labor exceeds growth in supply, wages go up as employers bid against each other to hire workers. When the opposite occurs – growth in supply exceeds growth in demand – wages fall as workers compete for a limited number of job opportunities. That’s how it’s supposed to work according to theory, and that’s how it has worked (more or less) in prior business cycles.

But so far, that’s apparently NOT how it has worked during the COVID recession. Why?

First, let’s look at history. The chart below shows average real hourly earnings (in 2020 dollars) for U.S. private sector production workers from 1964 to 2020. Besides the flat U shape, you can see how wage increases moderated during certain periods, like the early 1970s, the early 1980s and the early 2010s. That makes sense since those were periods of recession. Jobs were lost, hiring demand was down and that put downward pressure on wages.

The chart below shows the change in average real hourly earnings and brings out the contrasts shown above even more. Big drops in real wages occurred during the oil embargo recessions of the 1970s and early 1980s and a smaller drop occurred during the Great Recession. Again, this is what we expect to see.

But now look at 2020, the year of the awful COVID recession. Preliminary data indicates that real hourly earnings actually rose by 3.7%, the third HIGHEST real increase on record since 1964. (The two higher ones were 4.0% in 1972 and 3.7% in 2009, both peak years immediately prior to recessions.) Everybody knows there have been job losses during the COVID recession so why are average wages going up?

We’ll have more in Part Two.

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Comptroller Candidate Tim Adams Opposes MoCo’s Liquor Monopoly

By Adam Pagnucco.

Tim Adams, who is the current Mayor of Bowie and is running for Comptroller of Maryland, said in an interview last week with radio station WNST that he opposes MoCo’s liquor monopoly. In response to a question about increasing liquor taxes (on which he adopted no hard position), Adams said:

I think Montgomery County needs to get out of the liquor business.

Radio Host: Tell folks who may not be from Montgomery County what that issue is and why you feel that way.

Adams: Well, because, what it is, they end up having almost like a board that regulates and establishes the liquor and all the things that goes on with that. And I think there are three things that I will just say, because I know our time is getting short, but you gotta look at it as – you know, we really need to make sure that we… by doing it that way, we lack choice. You know, I think if you bring in competition and allow people to do that, I think it will increase the choice that the citizens of Montgomery have. I think it would improve service. I think that maybe some who feels there’s a lack of service, but again, with that competition you get that. And then most importantly, by continuing to do it this way, you end up with higher prices because you have added bureaucracy on top of it. So I believe that the citizens of Montgomery are ready for them to get out of that business and allow competition to come in and support.

Adams also said he supports allowing grocery stores to sell beer and wine. So far, Delegate Brooke Lierman is the only other declared candidate for comptroller.

Adams’s comments on MoCo’s liquor monopoly appear at 21:28 of the video below.

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What Climate Emergency?

By Adam Pagnucco.

On December 9, 2017, the Montgomery County Council passed a resolution declaring a “climate emergency.” The resolution stated, “Climate change will cause an increase in water and food shortages, civil unrest, state failure, civil war and terrorism throughout the world, with no region or nation being immune to these effects, including Montgomery County.” It went on to state, “We must together implement a massive emergency global mobilization effort to successfully eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and remove excess carbon from the atmosphere. Each of us has the moral duty to safeguard the planet for future generations.”

A climate emergency. Merriam-Webster defines an emergency as “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action” or “an urgent need for assistance or relief.” Consider the following three matters and then decide if the county is acting like there is a climate “emergency.”

Closing the Dickerson Incinerator

In December 2016, the county’s incinerator in Dickerson was the site of an enormous, 85-foot tall trash fire that required hundreds of fire fighters to put out. It later emerged that the plant had 105 days of unscheduled outages between March and October of 2016, forcing the county to divert tens of thousands of tons of trash. Council Member Marc Elrich, one of the lead sponsors of the council’s climate emergency resolution, promised to close the incinerator when he was running for county executive. In January 2018, he tweeted, “And I’m preparing legislation to create a plan to transition us away from the incinerator so we can close it when our contract expires in 2022.”

But there were two problems. First, outgoing County Executive Ike Leggett extended the incinerator contract with its private sector operator right before leaving office. However, the contract allows the county to buy its way out. The second and bigger problem was that neither Elrich nor the county had any alternative plan for what to do with the waste if the incinerator was closed. Elrich told Bethesda Beat four months after taking office: “I’m gonna phase it out when I can phase it out. But people have to remember that I didn’t say I was gonna shut it down until we had a plan for dealing with the waste… So I’m not shutting it down until we figure out how we’re gonna figure out how we’re gonna increase the amount of recycling.” Elrich later told the Washington Post, “If I can’t do it by 2022, then 2026 gives me four more years… I’m not going to do a bad solution in ’22 just to say I did it in ’22. I would rather be on a path to a good solution. If it’s a year or two or three years later, I can live with it. As long as it’s a better solution than what we’re doing now.”

All of this happened almost two years ago. The incinerator still operates today. As for the promised legislation in 2018 to transition away from the incinerator, it was never introduced.

Climate Planning

In response to the council’s climate emergency resolution, a workgroup of county government, Park and Planning and MCPS collaborated on a 55-page report in 2018 containing more than 100 policy options for a “decarbonized future.” That was just the beginning.

Next, Elrich convened a 222-member transition team to prepare a comprehensive report to guide his new administration. The environmental team was comprised of one captain, two facilitators, three recorders and 25 members. They analyzed greenhouse gas emissions, recycling and code enforcement and issued 16 specific recommendations. (One of them was to “eliminate incineration.”)

The transition team’s report did not lead to a flood of legislation but rather to five climate workgroups with 150 people. The county hired a consultant to assist them and budgeted $400,000 in both FY20 and FY21 to pay for “climate change planning.” The workgroups issued 850 recommendations in a 96-page report. (Once again, one of the recommendations was to “eliminate incineration.”)

This was followed by a 235-page climate action plan released in December. One of Elrich’s staffers told Maryland Matters, “It is the shared responsibility of the county council and the county executive to take the next steps and come up with legislative packages based on the recommended climate actions.”

As of this writing, no legislation has been introduced to advance the recommendations of the climate action plan since its publication. Compare this record to that of former Council Member Roger Berliner, who back in 2014 introduced 11 bills and 2 zoning text amendments on the environment ON THE SAME DAY. (All but two bills passed.) But the county did rename its Energy and Air Quality Advisory Committee as the Climate, Energy and Air Quality Advisory Committee, so there is that.

Solar Energy in the Agricultural Reserve

Solar energy is a frequent topic of the county’s environmental planning. The executive’s transition team recommended, “Electrify everything and exclusively use solar and wind energy.” The climate workgroups recommended, “Evaluate environmental and ecological impact of using land in the agricultural reserve for solar” and “Establish demonstration projects to co-locate PV solar with agricultural production (such as grazing) and pollinator meadows.” The climate action plan mentions the word “solar” 184 times although it takes no position as to whether it should be installed in the agricultural reserve. The report does call for a transition to 100% renewable production of electricity by 2030, of which solar is one component. Presumably, enough space must be designated for solar use to achieve the scale sufficient to meet that goal.

In January 2020, Council Members Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker introduced Zoning Text Amendment 20-01, which allowed solar panels on a maximum of 1,800 acres in the 101,500-acre agricultural reserve. This set off a firestorm, resulting in four committee sessions, two full council sessions, three different news releases concerning “additional stakeholder engagement,” a town hall event, a poll showing 69% support for the legislation among MoCo voters and countless blast emails from feuding environmental groups on opposite sides of the issue. All of this took a year before the council’s votes to add amendments on soil restrictions and review requirements prompted one solar generator to terminate its projects in the county and caused the solar industry to push for the legislation’s defeat. In the end, if the zoning text amendment passes in its current form, it seems likely that no solar panels will be installed in the reserve unless the council members go up there with tool boxes and do it themselves.

There is an upside. The county won’t be getting the 300 megawatts of solar power allowed by the original version of the above zoning text amendment but it will be installing 6 megawatts of solar power at a Gaithersburg landfill.

Climate emergency? What climate emergency?

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MCEA Announces Rally for Safe Schools on Tuesday

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has announced that it is planning a rally for safe schools outside MCPS headquarters on Tuesday. The rally will be a socially distanced car picket. MCEA’s press release is reprinted below.

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, February 19, 2021
Media Contact: Kiwana Hall
khall@mceanea.org

Montgomery County Education Association to Rally in Demand of Safe and Equitable Reopening of Schools

ROCKVILLE, MD – Frontline Montgomery County educators will hold a socially-distanced, collective action outside Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) headquarters in the form of a car picket and rally. Members of Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) are demanding that the MCPS Board of Education consider equitable solutions for the safe reopening of schools.

Who: Montgomery County educators and community members

What: Car picket and rally

When: Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Members, Parents, and Community Supporters arrive at 4:30 p.m.

Picket line and program begins at 5 p.m.

Where: MCPS headquarters at 850 Hungerford Drive, Rockville, Maryland 20850

Note: Montgomery County educators will be available for interviews at the demonstration, or by request in advance.

Why: MCPS approved a reopening plan that MCEA found requires “more space, more people, and more resources than are now available,” and has inadequate safety measures for students and educators. As a result, the association took a vote of no confidence in the plan.

MCEA members demand that MCPS adhere to CDC guidelines regarding the physical reopening of school buildings, implement a contact tracing and testing program, and provide all employees the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before a return to in-person instruction.

The system must also develop a building reopening plan for the adequate staffing of all instructional models, particularly those that directly serve Black and brown students, and students impacted by poverty, without diminishing access to staff and services that supplement required direct instruction.

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Elrich and Gayles Comment on MCPS Reopening

By Adam Pagnucco.

In the wake of MCEA’s resolution expressing no confidence in MCPS’s reopening plan, County Executive Marc Elrich and county health officer Travis Gayles were asked by the press today whether they agreed with MCEA or MCPS. Following is a transcription of their comments.

Question from Tom Fitzgerald, Fox 5 DC:

Question about schools. A lot of us got a news release yesterday from Montgomery County Education Association which says in part that they were passing a lack of confidence resolution. Quote: “The current MCPS plan to reopen school facilities cannot be successfully implemented, requiring more resources, more people, more space and more time and not negatively impacting students’ learning experience.” This is for Dr. Gayles and the county executive. Understanding what we just said about not wanting to open things up to have things rebound, I guess the simple question is are they right? Is the plan that’s been presented in a position to not be successfully implemented?

County health officer Travis Gayles:

I can speak from a health perspective. I’m not privy to those conversations between the union and MCPS and so forth. What I can say is this: is that the guidance that we have provided continues to be the same and is consistent with the metrics and measures that we put out in the fall using the state guidelines as well as the CDC guidelines in terms of metrics and markers where we thought it would be safe to come back related to test positivity and community transmission rate as evidenced by case rates.

And the numbers that we have are moving in that direction, which is favorable. What’s also different now than before, which again I continue to emphasize, is that we are seeing teachers and education staff get vaccinated and have access to that. I do think it is important for them to be able to have access to at least one shot before going back into the classroom. I know some may say that’s controversial given some of the CDC guidance but I do think we should continue to ensure that they have access to that as an added layer of protection when they go into the classroom.

Based upon… Dr. Stoddard and I, we meet regularly with our colleagues at MCPS, and based upon the tremendous amount of work that they have put into planning and coming up with different provisions and safety measures to put into the classrooms to mitigate transmission, we feel that they have done their due diligence in that and continue to refine. Though that said, I think if anyone should be concerned, going back into work for person-to-person, but we do feel that they have put a lot of effort in terms of coming up with different contingency plans and safety measures to mitigate transmission as much as possible. And we will certainly continue to… again, we don’t make those decisions, so again, for everybody at home, the health department does not make the decisions whether or not schools open, but we will continue to again monitor our guidance that we have provided to them based upon the surveillance information we have at hand.

County Executive Marc Elrich:

I haven’t read everything the school system’s proposed. I understand concerns about whether ventilation issues and other things have been adequately addressed, or how many people are going to be in a classroom because… as a former teacher, if I had the regular sized class in a regular sized classroom, I would never achieve the separation that people want. So I would want to look at how they are gonna deal with the number of kids who are brought back into classrooms.

And I think the big thing that gets lost in all of this is we talk about Montgomery County as if Montgomery County were all the same. And the truth is, and this is one reason why we’ve been focused on equity issues, there are parts of the county that do really, really well. I mean, our positivity and cases per hundred thousand is the total for the entire county – they are not evenly distributed across the county. You can look at zip codes, and we’ve got zip code maps, and you’ll see far more cases and far more apparent transmission per hundred thousand and you’ll see other zip codes where you don’t see many cases and you have, and you extrapolate much lower likelihood of transmission. So I understand that people would look at different neighborhoods and have different concerns about where you were teaching and what’s the environment and what’s the positivity rather than just looking at countywide numbers. I think there is something to be said for thinking about that.

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MCPS Responds to MCEA No Confidence Resolution

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Board of Education and Superintendent Jack Smith just released a statement responding to MCEA’s resolution of no confidence in MCPS’s reopening plan. Their statement is reprinted below.

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Statement from the Board of Education and Superintendent Jack R. Smith on The MCEA Resolution on MCPS’ Return-to-School Plan

February 17, 2021
Statement from the Board of Education:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been and continues to be a significant challenge for our public education system. As a system, we have worked collectively to meet the moment by being resilient and focused on serving our students. Given the challenges we have faced, and the challenges ahead of us, the Montgomery County Board of Education (Board) is deeply disappointed in the Montgomery County Education Association’s (MCEA) recent actions regarding school reopening. During the last 11 months, the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) administration has spent hundreds of hours engaging with MCEA leadership and reached tentative agreement on a Memorandum of Understanding on February 12. The Board believes in collaboration with all stakeholders, including our teachers’ union. However, collaboration does not supplant the singular responsibility and authority of the Board to make decisions about MCPS. The Board always welcomes feedback to enhance and improve our recovery plan, but we must work together constructively to ensure the best outcomes for all students, particularly during this pandemic.

The pandemic has strained us individually and as a community. There is no perfect plan and no decision without consequences. We will continue to review and adjust our strategies to fulfill our core mission of ensuring that every student will have the academic, creative problem solving, and social-emotional skills to be successful in college and career.”

Statement from Superintendent Jack R. Smith:

“Montgomery County Public Schools has developed a comprehensive recovery plan that prioritizes the safety of students and staff and the continued academic growth of all students. While we understand that staff may have some questions and concerns, these plans were developed with input from a diverse set of MCPS stakeholders and are reflective of the district’s commitment to fostering a partnership that benefits our students, staff and community.

I am deeply perplexed by the vote of no confidence from the teachers’ union, coming on the same day we released the joint Memorandum of Understanding. Our recovery plan and discussions with the association followed months of tremendous collaboration and interaction in development of this work. MCPS staff benchmarked with school districts across the state and nation for best practices and applied important guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and our state and local health officials. Physical distancing, face coverings, hand-washing, COVID-19 case tracking, testing and personal attestation will all be a part of the experience once students return to ensure safety for all.

We have worked diligently to ensure thorough mitigation protocols, personal protective equipment (PPE) and professional development are in place for staff to make in-person learning as safe as possible. We are focused on providing an equitable and high-quality instructional experience for all students, whether virtual or in-person. Many students and families are eagerly awaiting this return and school leaders and support professionals are committed to this.

We look forward to welcoming the first group of students back to our buildings on March 1 and March 15, and know that our staff is dedicated to meeting the needs of all our students. “

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