Category Archives: MCPS

Elrich Asks MCPS for Cuts

By Adam Pagnucco.

In a memo to Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Superintendent Jack Smith, County Executive Marc Elrich is asking MCPS to make operating budget cuts along with the rest of county government. Elrich also makes clear that the capital budget will have to be reduced. Elrich is not asking for a specific cut number yet but indicates that the county will have a clearer picture of its tax base by late August.

What is unclear is how any spending cuts to MCPS conform with state law. The county council recently funded MCPS at maintenance of effort, which is the minimum amount of local dollars allowed by the state. If the county wants to reduce MCPS below maintenance of effort, relevant state law will need to be addressed.

Elrich’s memo to Smith appears below.

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MCPS Survey Responses on Distance Learning

By Adam Pagnucco.

On May 27, the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) released a summary of responses from local school districts to its survey on distance learning. However, MSDE did not initially list the responses by school district. After Delegate Eric Luedtke (D-14) submitted a Maryland Public Information Act request to get the responses by district, MSDE published that data. Delegate Luedtke shared the responses with Seventh State. Below are the questions by MSDE and the responses submitted by Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in early May.

Question: Are distance learning packets a part of your school system’s Continuity of Learning Plan?

Answer: Yes.

Q: In the past week, what percentage of eligible students received at least one distance learning packet?

A: I have data about distance learning packets but cannot answer this question exactly as it is written.

Q: If you answered the previous question “I cannot answer this question exactly as it is written” or need to provide additional information about students receiving distance learning packets, please explain.

A: To date, MCPS has produced 405,583 instructional packets from the digital files provided by the Curriculum Office. These multi-page, two-sided, stapled booklets are grade-specific and course-specific.

Distributed to schools:
March 13: 109,023

Distributed to meal distribution sites:
Total of 296,550
April 8: 47,250
April 17: 77,950
April 22: 77,950
April 29: 46,705
May 6: 46,705

Q: Is your school system collecting data on student engagement with distance learning packets?

A: Yes.

Q: How does your school system define student engagement with distance learning packets? (What “counts” as engagement?)

A: The weekly packets are designed for students to use in collaboration with the digital learning platform or for students to use in replacement of the digital learning platform. Students using the packets are expected to complete the assignments and tasks in the packets. Students who use the weekly paper packet should take a picture of one assignment page that best represents their work for the week and submit it to the teacher via email. Teachers keep the submitted packet assignments and use it to inform engagement levels as well as to inform the learning that is taking place.

Q: In the past week, what percentage of your students who received a distance learning packet have engaged with a distance learning packet? (For example, if 600 students received a distance learning packet, what percent of those 600 students engaged with a distance learning packet?)

A: I have data about engagement with distance learning packets but cannot answer this question exactly as it is written.

Q: If you answered the previous question “I cannot answer this question exactly as it is written” or need to provide additional information about students engaging with distance learning packets, please explain.

A: MCPS has just over 100 students engaging in only paper-packet activities. These students are working with their individual teachers on completion of work. MCPS is collecting engagement data from teachers in order to account for all students during distance learning. Teachers not only provide feedback through the use of the gradebook, but they also provide anecdotal data on individual students who are/are not engaging in remote learning.

Q: To your knowledge, what percentage of your students have access to the Internet, either at home or at a location suitable for accessing online learning activities? (Please answer this question to the best of your knowledge, even if your school system is not using online distance learning as part of its Continuity of Learning Plan.)

A: 93.75%.

Q: Is online distance learning part of your school system’s Continuity of Learning Plan?

A: Yes.

Q: Is your school system collecting data on students who sign on to online distance learning?

A: Yes.

Q: How has your school system defined “signed on” to online distance learning? (What “counts” as being signed on?)

A: MCPS is using three core digital systems as part of the online learning experience: Canvas, Google Apps, and Zoom. We are able to track logins across each of these systems over time.

Q: In the past week, what percentage of eligible students signed on to online distance learning?

A: 95% signed on at least once between April 25 and May 1.

Q: Is your school system collecting data on student engagement with online distance learning?

A: Yes.

Q: How has your school system defined/measured student engagement with online distance learning?

A: Engagement includes digital footprint data (logging in), completion of assignments, engaging in live sessions, and having interaction with the teacher. MCPS uses the digital footprint data to create an initial profile of the student’s online activity. We set a guideline of three logins per week per student, but recognize that some students may complete work in fewer, longer sessions, and the majority of students will engage in far more than three sessions per week. This data serves as a baseline indicator. From there, teachers provide anecdotal data and layer in additional engagement data that we cannot capture with the digital footprint data – paper packets, emails, phone calls, parent outreach, and effort. Together, this data is used to determine engagement for students.

Q: In the past week, what percentage of your students engaged with online distance learning?

A: I have data about engagement with online distance learning but cannot answer this question exactly as it is written.

Q: If you answered the previous question “I cannot answer this question exactly as it is written” or need to provide additional information about students engaging with online distance learning, please explain.

A: During the week of April 25th, more than 90% of students logged in to our digital systems more than 3 times. Teachers are in the process of updating comments about students’ engagement to provide the complete picture of activity for the first three weeks of marking period 4.

Q: Since your school system implemented its Continuity of Learning Plan, what percentage of students and/or families in your school system have not once been contacted, and/or contact has been attempted but failed? Contact may occur with either the student or family, and with a teacher, school staff member, school system administrator, or other educator.

A: <1%.

Q: Since your school system implemented its Continuity of Learning Plan, what percentage of students in your school system have not participated in distance learning in any form, meaning they have not received a distance learning packet, have not logged on to online distance learning, etc.? These students may have been contacted for other reasons.

A: Between 3% and 10% depending on criteria used.

Q: This survey asked about student participation in distance learning for your school system as a whole. Do you have this information by grade span (elementary, middle, and high)?

A: Yes.

Q: Please provide any additional information or comments about student contact and/or participation in distance learning.

A: About 3% of students have not engaged in distance learning of any kind or have not responded to emails, phone calls, or other outreach efforts. Some of these students were waiting on technology (which we are still centrally distributing or delivering to homes as requests come in). A small subset have indicated that due to illness, enrolling in community college courses, applying for early graduation, or opting out of distance learning, they will not be engaged in marking period four learning activities. As part of the engagement framework for marking period four, MCPS has set the minimum expected level of weekly log-ins to core digital platforms to greater than or equal to 3. While the majority of students are well above this minimum criteria, about 10% of students are not meeting this threshold. School academic and well-being support teams are charged with following up with these students in order to help improve quality and quantity of engagement in distance learning. MCPS has developed a comprehensive outreach plan that includes coordinated communication between counselors, school administrators, parent community coordinators, PPWs, and local law enforcement to connect with 670 students who have not yet engaged in any form of distance learning or replied to phone calls, emails, or other outreach efforts.

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MCPS Provides Details on Central Office Spending

By Adam Pagnucco.

In a recent post, I mentioned that MCPS’s central office spending had increased by 31% in three years, which was roughly triple the rate of spending growth in the school system’s entire budget. Derek Turner, Chief Communications Officer for MCPS, provided this explanation to us on changes in that spending category.

The increase in the MCPS Category I budget reflects a significant investment (nearly $9 million between 2017- 2020) to replace legacy business systems that are inefficient and ineffective for a school system of 167, 000 students and 24,000 employees. For context, MCPS has a set of legacy business systems that include paper-based timekeeping for employees; siloed financial systems that do not speak with one another; and a human resources system that relies heavily on the manual input of information. Given how outdated the systems are, when these systems come online, we will believe it will lead to long-term savings for the school system. Details about this increase can be found in the budget documents archived here: https://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/budget/archive.aspx.

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MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part Three

By Adam Pagnucco.

MCPS’s contested boundary analysis has dominated MoCo’s nasty school board race. It’s an issue definitely worthy of discussion, but it’s not the only one. Here are a few other issues that the school board candidates should address.

How can the Weast coalition be rebuilt?

Former MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast, who ruled the schools from 1999 through 2011, was many things: a bureaucratic empire builder, a ruthless field general, a hardened wielder of data and much more. He was also one of the greatest coalition builders in the history of MoCo. Weast knew that his initiatives cost money and he knew he needed allies to get it. His talents for horse-trading, cooptation, message-building and political head-knocking served him well. He reached an understanding with MCPS’s stakeholders that they could participate in crafting his budgets, but in return, they had to stick together against the common enemy: elected officials with funding authority. When budget time came, those who thought about going against Weast’s budget not only had to deal with Weast himself and his ministry of propaganda; they also had to fight the county employee unions, the PTAs and even the Washington Post’s editorial page (which was firmly pro-Weast). Weast’s power was so feared that most of the time, he didn’t even have to fight – he simply cut deals with chastened politicians who moved on to easier prey.

The Great Recession killed the Weast coalition and it has not been rebuilt. The relationship between current MCPS management and the unions is particularly problematic. In the Weast era, the unions completed contract negotiations in the fall, but as of this writing, none of them have yet finalized new collective bargaining agreements with MCPS.

These guys want to know who will get the band back together.

The recent history of the county’s local per pupil funding demonstrates the consequences of the declining power of school advocates. The chart below shows local per pupil contributions to MCPS – in other words, the amount of local dollars the county appropriated per student, which excludes other sources of money (like state and federal aid). The green line shows nominal dollars while the red line shows real 2020 dollars (which have been adjusted for inflation).

In nominal dollars, the county’s local per pupil contribution peaked at $11,249 in FY09. It was then cut for three straight years and frozen for four straight years until it began increasing in FY17. The county’s per pupil contribution in FY20 ($10,923) is 2.9% below its FY09 peak.

When adjusting for inflation, the story becomes much worse. In 2020 dollars, the FY09 peak was $13,508. By FY20, the local per pupil contribution had fallen to 19.1% below the peak. During this period, the percentage of students receiving ESOL services and free and reduced price meals rose continuously, meaning that needs were increasing as local money per student was not keeping pace with inflation. This is the number one financial challenge faced by MCPS, at least prior to the era of COVID-19.

The school system needs money, and in a political context, extracting money requires power. School board candidates should lay out how they intend to rebuild and unify MCPS’s advocate community. The alternative is to go hat-in-hand to county funders just as one of the worst budget crises in county history erupts – a crisis from which MCPS will not be immune.

What happens when the next school year starts?

MCPS will likely continue online learning for the rest of this school year. But no one knows what will happen when the next school year begins. The options are many and all of them have drawbacks. How would school board candidates balance learning, resources and the health of students, school employees and families?

How can MCPS get more bang for its buck in the capital budget?

MCPS enrollment has been growing rapidly for a decade, but at the moment, the county’s capital budget is shrinking. MCPS’s capital budget has done better than some other programs (especially transportation), but in real dollar terms, it peaked in FY17. The system could be in for cuts early next year because two large sources of school construction funding – recordation tax premiums and impact taxes – are likely to be hit hard by the COVID-19 recession. The General Assembly passed a large expansion of state school construction funding in March but, because it was tied to the Kirwan funding bill vetoed by Governor Larry Hogan, that money is on hold for now.

With enrollment continuing to grow and capital money tight (at best), MCPS will have to get more bang for its buck with whatever capital dollars it can acquire. School board candidates should be prepared to discuss how MCPS can best do that.

What is going on in the central office?

In FY17, MCPS spent $42,850,477 on administration spending. (This category, defined as Category 1 by the state, includes the central office but not school-based administration like principals.) The FY20 approved budget contains $56,084,530 in administration spending, a 31% increase. Over the same period, MCPS’s grand total spending went up from $2,426,611,128 to $2,680,574,773, an increase of 10%. Why has administration spending grown three times as fast as overall school spending? School board candidates should be asking that question and vowing to get answers.

Editor’s Note: MCPS has replied that nearly $9 million of the increase is due to replacing business systems. You can see their response here.

A student speaks about an issue.

Finally, the following was written by my kid, who is a 5th grade MCPS student. Candidates, pay heed as this guy is a future voter!

School lunches have been a problem for a really long time in MCPS, at least in my school. Most of the food that my school provides during our lunch time is pretty low quality. A lot of the food that my school serves is usually very sugary and unhealthy which shouldn’t be the case because there are students who eat that food 5 days a week which I assume is not good for our stomachs. Besides the lunches that students can bring from home, keep in mind that school lunches are the only type of food that is supposed to replenish our energy to keep us active throughout the day. In my opinion all types of students deserve a good lunch, because all of us are working very hard throughout the day. But if some students have to eat unhealthy food as the only source of energy to get them through the day, that is a problem. Point being, please do whatever is necessary to provide healthier lunches for the kids who need them.

PS: Even though I always bring lunch from home, the pizza that my school serves for lunch is straight up kind of disgusting.

If anything is worse than a nasty election, it’s nasty food. No matter how one feels about the boundary analysis, hopefully we can agree on that!

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MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

In addition to being one of MoCo’s nastiest races of all time, this year’s school board election is arguably the strangest ever. Consider a list of typical election activities that are hampered or altogether prohibited by the COVID-19 lockdown.

Door knocking – Fuhgeddaboutit.

In-person campaign coffees and fundraisers – Fuhgeddaboutit.

Lit handouts at Metro stations – Fuhgeddaboutit.

Lit drops – It’s not clear if this counts as essential travel. It’s also not clear if this will creep out voters.

Campaign forums – They are not possible to do in person. There are opportunities to do these online but there will be far fewer of them than in a regular cycle.

Poll coverage – Fuhgeddaboutit!!

So what’s left? No candidate currently has the money to do serious mail. Blast emails are possible, but if anyone has an email list, I’m not on it. (For the record, I have been added to TONS of political email lists!) Signs have been distributed along with the usual instances of illegal placement. Bethesda Beat is covered with school board ads. (Steve Hull wins every election!) Social media ads are cost effective and several candidates have used them, but they can’t replace all of the other campaign tools that have been knocked out by the virus. Then there is the word of mouth being circulated by supporters of one candidate or another, but to see it, you have to be connected to the partisans. The HUGE majority of voters are not in these bubbles.

Let’s remember that this is a presidential primary and all county voters with all party affiliations can vote. In the 2016 primary, 183,479 people voted in MoCo’s at-large school board race. That far exceeds the number who vote in mid-term Democratic primaries for governor, county executive and county council at-large, races which have much more financing than school board contests. The two candidates who emerged from the 2016 primary had more than 50,000 votes each. This year’s winning number could be higher if the all-mail election encourages higher turnout as it did in Rockville and also because of national factors.

Given all of these limitations, you would have to be crazy to be a campaign manager in this race!

That said, there are certain factors that could make a difference.

The Apple Ballot

The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has an excellent record of getting its endorsed school board candidates through primaries. MCEA’s choice this year is Universities at Shady Grove professor Sunil Dasgupta, who proudly puts the Apple Ballot front and center on his website. Historically, the union’s most effective tactic has been distribution of Apple Ballots at voting precincts, but that is now impossible due to COVID-19 restrictions and the state’s transition to a mostly mail election. The teachers can still use social media and they have sent at least one mailer promoting their candidate. One note of caution comes from February 2008, when an ice storm shut down MCEA’s poll coverage, resulting in a rare defeat for its candidate in a primary.

The Washington Post

Along with the Apple Ballot, the Post’s endorsement is one of the top two in school board races and has a great record of helping candidates win. At first it seemed the Post was going to sit out the primary (as it has done before), but over the weekend, the newspaper endorsed former PTA president Lynne Harris. This is a huge problem for anti-boundary analysis leader Stephen Austin, who now faces one candidate with the Apple, another one with the Post and a primary from which only two candidates will emerge. One question: with Harris’s lack of funding and the Post endorsement coming so late, will she have the time and bandwidth to capitalize on it?

Stephen Austin’s Facebook Group

Say what you will about Austin and his group, but his page is larger than any other MCPS-related site that could play a part in this election. Consider these Facebook page statistics at this writing.

Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools (Austin’s group): 8,033 members
Montgomery County Education Association: 4,006 followers
Montgomery County Council of PTAs: 1,573 followers
SEIU Local 500 (an endorser of Dasgupta): 1,154 followers
One Montgomery (favors school equity, opposes Austin): 846 followers
Sunil Dasgupta’s campaign page: 595 followers
Stephen Austin’s campaign group: 358 members
Lynne Harris’s campaign page: 275 followers
Jay Guan’s campaign page: 185 followers

None of the candidates’ pages are large enough to have any organic effect on the election though they can be used for ads. But through his “neighbors for local schools” page, Austin can reach out to roughly 8,000 people, an advantage that no other candidate has. In an election with no poll coverage by the Apple Ballot, no ground-level campaigning and no serious money for any candidate, how big of an advantage is this?

One Montgomery’s Attack Piece

The brutal One Montgomery attack piece in Maryland Matters linking Austin to Trump supporters and anti-LGBTQ activists has gotten a lot of attention on his critics’ pages. But has it really penetrated beyond the progressive circles that were unlikely to vote for Austin anyway? For this piece to be truly effective, someone has to place a four- or five-digit social media ad buy to push it out to the general public. Otherwise it will be just one more thing to argue about for the relative handful of folks inside the bubble.

The Alphabet

Don’t laugh, but in down-ballot, under-the-radar races, being near or at the top of the ballot can get a candidate a few extra points. Research of varying quality has found this to be the case in Danish local and regional elections, Vancouver local elections, California state elections, California city council and school board elections, Ohio county elections and British local council elections. Austin will be listed second on the ballot. Will that matter?

However these factors mix, there are two likely scenarios. If Dasgupta and Harris emerge from the primary, this will turn into a traditional Apple vs Post race. But if Austin breaks through to claim one of the primary spots, this will be more insider vs outsider with school boundaries front and center. Jay Guan, the fundraising leader who has mailed a postcard, may also have a chance.

There is more to an election than tactics; there is also policy at stake. Part Three will conclude with a few issues that have been overshadowed by the boundary analysis war but nevertheless warrant attention from the candidates.

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MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part One

By Adam Pagnucco.

Negative campaigning has a long and brutal history in Montgomery County but this year’s school board election is emerging as one of the most contentious contests in decades. The arguments contain echoes of the titanic school board election battles of the early 1980s, in which a conservative faction led by Marian Greenblatt was eventually toppled. Then as now, race, school boundaries, accusations of busing and the shadow of national politics mixed in a bubbling witches’ brew that no cauldron could hold. There is nothing new here. Rather, skeletons emerge from the grave to refight battles that seem as eternal as they are ancient.

The immediate impetus of the current dispute is a change made to MCPS’s facility planning policy in September 2018. Prior to the change, four factors were weighted equally in picking sites for new schools and changing school boundaries: demographic characteristics of student population, geography, stability of school assignments over time and facility utilization. The new policy was revised to contain this sentence on demographics: “Options should especially strive to create a diverse student body in each of the affected schools in alignment with Board Policy ACD, Quality Integrated Education.” Jill Ortman-Fouse, who at that time was on the school board and helped lead the effort to change the policy, justified it by saying, “Diversity matters. Let’s weight that a little bit more.” MCPS followed up by hiring a contractor to study school boundaries and implementing a redistricting in Germantown and Clarksburg that spawned a lawsuit.

Now supporters and opponents of the new facilities policy and the boundary analysis are at war. The leader of the opposition is Stephen Austin, a newcomer to MoCo politics who set up a Facebook group last winter that now has almost 8,000 members. It’s unusual in the county for such a large group to form so quickly without external organization and funding, but schools are a hot issue here for folks with all kinds of perspectives. The other side is a group of MCPS activists favoring the boundary analysis, many of whom have been active on school issues for a long time. Their spiritual leader is Ortman-Fouse, who has made diversity her signature issue both during and after her tenure on the school board. Austin is one of 13 candidates running for an at-large school board seat in a field with varying views on school boundaries. Strong feelings run high on both sides.

My personal sympathies lie with those who favor diverse schools. My upstate New York elementary school was roughly 90% white. When I moved to MoCo, I deliberately chose to live near a diverse public elementary school so that my kid could benefit from being around others with different races, cultures and life experiences. My choice paid off in a BIG way. My kid has experienced both diversity and superb academic instruction at the same time. He is much better prepared for the modern world than I was at his age. So I won’t be voting for any candidate who opposes diversity.

But there is more going on here than just that one issue.

I read the posts in Austin’s Facebook group almost every day. There are statements on there with which I disagree. There is some nastiness directed at the other side (and the press). But there are also participants who express a mixture of curiosity, concern and skepticism. Some distrust what they see as a centralized school bureaucracy that does not communicate very well. (This is one sentiment they share with some on the other side!) There are plenty of folks there who are not white. There has also been discussion of issues other than the boundary analysis. It’s a more complicated place than Austin’s opponents might admit. However, some of the blame for that goes to the moderators who have kicked out people who disagree, causing the exiles to assume the worst since they can’t view the content themselves. Inflammatory tidbits sometimes leak anyway.

I’m not all that worried about the pugilists in the ring. In politics, anyone who throws a punch should be ready to take a punch. But I do wonder about the people in Austin’s group, as well as on other social media threads, who read all of this material and say nothing. What are they thinking? I bet more than a few believe there is no point in saying anything because if they do, and if they vary from the orthodoxy of either side, they will be subject to bitter, public personal attacks. How many folks who have something to contribute will never run for school board or get involved with school issues at all for fear of being hurled into the mud?

Here is a great irony. Austin’s supporters believe that the school board does not do enough to oversee or challenge MCPS management – a view shared by some on the left. It’s a common perception that some school board members get assimilated into the system after winning office (with the notable exception of the 2015 revolt against then-Superintendent Josh Starr). Bereft of a sizeable, independent staff of analysts reporting exclusively to them, the board risks being at the mercy of a management that can control information and set tight boundaries for policy decisions. One school board member who resisted that tendency was none other than Ortman-Fouse, who never backed down from management, regularly demanded (and released) data and engaged in actual constituent service – just like elected officials are supposed to do. Put aside their ideological disagreements and Ortman-Fouse could provide a model of independent-minded school board service that even Austin and his folks could appreciate were it not for their mutual loathing.

At this point, tribal politics has taken over this race. Each tribe fears what the other one will do if it wins. Non-tribe members are barely acknowledged even though at least 99% of the county has no idea what is going on in this election. The disengagement of so many voters and the sheer oddities of present times make this a hard race to divine.

In Part Two, I’ll assess the tactical environment in what might be MoCo’s strangest election ever.

And in Part Three, I’ll talk about a few issues that have been largely undiscussed so far but collectively will determine at least as much of MCPS’s future as any boundary analysis.

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MCPS Distributes Chromebooks Safely

Despite the difficult conditions, MCPS is working to make sure learning continues. The following are photos from outside Chevy Chase Elementary School showing how MCPS arranged the safe distribution of Chromebooks to people in autos and on foot.

Drive through lane
Instructions: don’t roll down the window but do pop the trunk
You’re almost there. . . Pedestrians near the head of the line
Lining up social distancing style on Rosemary Lane
Pedestrian instructions
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MoCo’s Moratorium Madness

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Montgomery County government is currently plagued by a $100 million operating budget shortfall and a shrinking capital budget.  So what is the county doing to revitalize its economy and earn more revenue?

Potentially, imposing more moratoriums on housing construction!

County development rules require moratoriums on housing construction inside school clusters or individual school service areas when projected public school enrollment accounts for 120% or more of capacity five years into the future.  Additionally, elementary schools must be 110 students over capacity and middle schools must be 180 students over capacity to trigger moratoriums.  Projects that are already approved are not halted by moratoriums but new project approvals are not granted.

Last year, the county imposed moratoriums on four high school clusters and 13 individual elementary school service areas.  Those areas accounted for roughly 12% of the county and included high-profile markets in Downtown Silver Spring and North Bethesda, thereby directly thwarting the county’s transit-oriented development strategy.

The problem with stopping residential development is that school impact taxes collected from new units can be a major source of revenue for school construction.  As recently as the FY15-20 amended capital budget, school impact taxes accounted for 15% of MCPS’s school construction budget.  Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.

In a memo to the Montgomery County Planning Board, planning staff noted that the county executive’s new recommended FY21-26 capital budget underfunds MCPS’s construction request by $61 million in FY21, $93 million in FY22, $93 million in FY23 and $57 million in FY24.  One of the biggest reasons for the underfunding is that school impact tax receipts have fallen by more than half since FY14.  The planning staff indicates that if the underfunding results in delayed projects, nine elementary school service areas (Bethesda, Clarksburg, JoAnn Leleck, Rachel Carson, Strawberry Knoll, Summit Hall, McNair, Page and Burnt Mills), one middle school service area (Parkland) and seven high school clusters (Quince Orchard, Richard Montgomery, Albert Einstein, Montgomery Blair, Blake, Northwood, Walter Johnson) may be at risk of moratoriums.  For the Blake, Blair, Einstein and Walter Johnson clusters, this would be the second straight year of moratorium, threatening projects in North Bethesda and Downtown Silver Spring.

The cruel fact here is that reducing residential construction has historically had little if any impact on MCPS enrollment increases.  The chart below shows MCPS enrollment (red line and left axis) and residential units permitted in Montgomery County (blue line and right axis) from 1994 through 2018.  MCPS enrollment comes from the county executive’s recommended budget while permitted units comes from the U.S. Census Bureau.  Over this 24 year period, housing construction has been falling while MCPS enrollment has been rising.  The contrast between the two trends has been most pronounced in recent years.  Housing units permitted has fallen from 3,981 in 2012 to 1,947 in 2018 while MCPS enrollment has grown from 146,497 to 161,470.  It defies logic to blame school crowding on housing construction when homebuilding is in an era of decline.

And so here is the effect of MoCo’s moratorium policy.  Housing construction drops, causing school impact tax payments to plummet and depriving school construction of needed funding.  The county reacts by delaying school projects, triggering moratoriums.  That causes housing construction to decline further and the cycle continues.  None of this helps more schools get built but it definitely constrains housing supply, thereby driving up home prices and making the county even more unaffordable to live in than it already is.  Another effect is that it makes the county radioactive to the real estate and investment communities, thereby pushing them into competing jurisdictions.  It’s no wonder that Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks is celebrating her county’s passing of Montgomery County in job creation.

Using residential moratoriums to prevent school crowding is like treating lung cancer by amputating the patient’s legs.  The treatment does nothing to solve the original problem but it definitely causes new problems to arise!

If you wanted to stop economic growth and make it harder for people to live here, it would be difficult to devise something more attuned to such goals than MoCo’s insane moratorium policy.  The county must bring it to an end.

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Placeholders, Indeed, Do Have a Place in the MCPS Capital Budget

By Glenn Orlin.

In a recent piece in Seventh State it was argued that so-called “placeholder” projects have no place in the Montgomery County Public Schools capital program. But there are very good reasons why the County Council has done exactly that for the past eight years.

First, some background.  The Subdivision Staging Policy (SSP) Public School Adequacy Test compares enrollment five years in advance—at each cluster and level (HS, MS, or ES), and at each school—against the budgeted capacity at each cluster/level and school five school years hence.  If the future enrollment exceeds the future capacity in a cluster by more than 20% at any level, then the cluster goes into a housing moratorium; that is, no more housing subdivisions can be approved until the capacity standard is met.  (Relocatable classrooms are not counted towards “capacity” under the School Adequacy Test.) If the future enrollment exceeds the future capacity in a MS service area by more than 20% and 180 students, then that MS service area goes into a housing moratorium.  If the future enrollment exceeds the future capacity in an ES service area by more than 20% and 110 students, then that ES service area goes into a housing moratorium.  The five-year rule was selected many years ago because, on average, that is how long it takes for a housing subdivision approval to morph into occupied housing units, many of them having kids of school age.

At the start of this decade the Council began the practice of budgeting generic “Solution” (i.e., placeholder) CIP projects in certain circumstances.  The rationale is that while a cluster or school service area might have enrollment that exceeds the moratorium threshold, in many cases MCPS is concurrently planning for a new school or addition that would provide sufficient capacity in time to avoid such a moratorium.  The Council has approved Solution projects only when all the following conditions are met:

  1. A cluster or school service area is projected to exceed the moratorium threshold;
  2. MCPS is concurrently—or about to start—planning for a capital project that would address the potential moratorium; and
  3. MCPS’s normal schedule for planning, design, and construction would have the project’s added capacity opening by the start of the school year five years hence.

The most recent application of the School Test was approved by the Planning Board on June 22, 2017.  The Board placed seven ES service areas into moratorium: Burnt Mills, Highland View, Kemp Mill, Lake Seneca, Rosemont, Strawberry Knoll, and Summit Hall.  At that time, while all of them met Condition #1, none of them met Conditions #2 and #3.  Eight other clusters or school service areas were not placed into moratorium because Solution projects were justifiable and programmed: they met all three conditions.  In the FY19-24 CIP several of these Solution projects will be replaced by specific projects that the Board of Education (BOE) is now officially ready to recommend.  This new CIP will include only four Solution projects.

It is important to note that the decision to budget a Solution project for a school has nothing to do with whether there are new housing applications in that area awaiting the Planning Board’s approval.  Condition #1 occurs either when projected enrollment growth due to turnover, already approved new housing, or both, will be over the capacity threshold.  Whether there are impending housing development applications simply doesn’t matter in the decision to budget a Solution project or not.  Now let’s turn to the examples raised in the earlier Seventh State piece.

Bethesda ES and Somerset ES.  The service areas for both schools in the B-CC Cluster are projected to be well over capacity (+25% and +27%, respectively) in five years, that is, by the start of the 2023-24 school year.  MCPS is initiating an elementary school capacity study for the B-CC Cluster, which would examine a range of options.  The study will be conducted during the 2018-2019 school year.  The Board of Education (BOE) will then be in position to propose a specific project in its FY21-26 CIP request; if that project’s funding were to begin in FY21, then, following the normal schedule for planning, design, and construction it could open at the start of the 2023-24 school year.  Because all three conditions are met—a projected moratorium, planning about to begin, and a path to project completion in five years—the Council is poised to fund Solution projects for Bethesda ES and Somerset ES.  The total amount to be budgeted for these two Solution projects is about $6.4 million.  When a specific project is ready to be budgeted, this $6.4 million will be used to help fund it.

Judith A. Resnik ES.  The current CIP has a fully funded addition at this Magruder Cluster school (which would bring its capacity up to 740), but the BOE deleted the construction funding in its request for the FY19-24 CIP.  Enrollment is trending downward, although in five years it is still projected to exceed the moratorium standard if there is no addition.  The BOE is continuing planning for an addition, however.  So, since all three of the above conditions are met, the Council is planning to fund a $2.7 million Solution project for Resnik ES.

The fourth Solution project is about $6.3 million for Einstein HS, which the Council had already initiated, and the BOE itself has recommended continuing it. Therefore, the sum of the four Solution projects is about $15.4 million.  All but $3.7 million would be programmed in the last three years of the CIP (FYs22-24).

Burnt Mills ES.  This school is projected to be 47% over capacity in 2023-24, so certainly Condition #1 is met.  However, MCPS is requesting the Council to set aside in the CIP $120 million (talk about your placeholders!) while it undertakes a thorough review of the prior revitalization/expansion program “in order to develop a multi-variable approach to determine the priority order of large-scale renovations, possibly including programmatic and capacity considerations” (Superintendent’s FY19 CIP Request, page 1-2).  Therefore, the Burnt Mills situation meets neither Condition #2 nor #3.  Once the BOE has determined a strategy for this school, its improvement would either be partially funded as a Solution project or fully funded from the outset.

Ashburton ES.  If the argument is being made that Solution projects are budgeted to meet the desires of new development, then consider the case of Ashburton in the Walter Johnson Cluster.  It is projected to be more than 22% over capacity five years from now, meeting Condition #1.  Just last fall the Council approved the Rock Spring Master Plan which allows for at least 2,300 more housing units than exists or is already approved.  Almost all the Rock Spring area is within the Ashburton ES service area.  Nevertheless, since MCPS is not undertaking planning for additional capacity that would further relieve Ashburton, its service area will go into a housing moratorium in July.

E. Brooke Lee MS Addition. When the Council approves the CIP, it assures that there is enough money to pay for the projects it is budgeting in each of the CIP’s six years.  The Council is approving a tighter CIP this year than in the past, because it recognizes that debt service on borrowing has grown too high.  (Debt service is an obligation that must be paid before anything else in the budget, including salaries.)  Earlier this year the Council asked for the Superintendent to provide it with a list of “non-recommended” projects that would be the first choices to be reduced or deferred, should the Council need them to meet the spending limits.

One of the projects on his list was to delay the construction funding for Lee MS by one year, although not to delay the first-year (FY19) design funds, which would allow the opportunity for the project to be reaccelerated next year.  In its worksession on April 17, several members of the Council expressed the desire to delay neither the design nor the construction funds for the Lee MS project.  To accommodate this desire, there is a shortfall of $8 million in FY20 and $9.5 million in FY21 for which funds must be found.  We will do our best to do that, but deleting the Solution projects would contribute nearly nothing to this effort; there is only $169,000 in Solution project funds in FY20, and only $3.6 million in FY21; the remaining $11.7 million is in FY22 and later.

Do Solution projects almost never get done in five years, as the Seventh State article claims?  In fact, almost every project does get done within five years, or, the BOE later decides that the project isn’t needed after all.   In the article, it is stated that most of the Solution projects added in FY15 did not translate into actual projects within five years, which would have been the 2019-2020 school year.  For FY15 the Council added Solution projects for five Downcounty Consortium elementary schools: Brookhaven, Glen Haven, Highland, Kemp Mill, and Sargent Shriver.  Two years later, however, the BOE retracted its request for these projects, noting that the projected seat deficits were no longer high enough for it to request funds for additions there (see the FY17 Educational Facilities Master Plan, pages 4-37 through 4-41).

Is “real money” being taken out of the MCPS for Solution projects?  In a word, no.  The Council never budgets all the money it could in the CIP.  This is because the Council needs to reserve funds for: (1) when construction bids come in over estimates; (2) for when projects that are in the planning stage are ready for construction funding later in the CIP period; and (3) for unanticipated opportunities or emergencies that arise.  For these reasons, the Council this year will probably set aside a capital reserve of about 9% of the funds available for budgeting, as has been recommended by the County Executive.  But, after all, a Solution project is but a designated reserve, so the Council—as it has in the past—will likely set an undesignated capital reserve less than the Executive recommended by the $15.4 million in these Solution projects.  Therefore, the Solution projects do not compete with other projects in the MCPS CIP, nor with those in the County Government, Montgomery College, or Park & Planning CIPs.  If anything, the Solution projects provide a first claim on the capital reserve.

In summary, Solution projects in the CIP in no way compete with other projects, and they avoid housing moratoria in certain situations where they are not warranted.

Glenn Orlin is the Deputy Director of the Office of the County Council.  He has been the Council’s CIP Coordinator for the last 26 years.

 

 

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Placeholders Have No Place in the MCPS Capital Budget

By Laura Stewart.

Have you ever heard of the term “placeholder” in the county budget? I never had, until as a PTA President, I started to advocate for an elementary school that had 9 portables. The terminology surrounding placeholders was confusing.  At first it sounded like a planning tool that might be helpful.  But as I have looked at the scenarios in front of us in this budget cycle, I believe that real solutions need to take place instead of placeholders.  I will explain by using two real life scenarios below, followed by a review of the consequences of the current County Council’s SSP (Subdivision Staging Policy.)

Scenario 1:

An elementary school has just received an addition due to housing turnover, new development, and a boundary change that was intended to address split articulation patterns and crowding at other schools.  After the addition was completed, the school immediately became over-crowded again and now has four portables. More development is underway in the area, and it will cause even more crowding at the school.

Due to county policy, future development goes into moratorium when a school is forecast to be over 120% capacity at year 5 in the budget, unless there is a “solution.” That solution can be a “placeholder,” money put in the budget that covers the extra seats a development will create, based on the County’s “student generation rates.”  This money is not tied to a specific plan. It is only there to prevent the area from going into moratorium. The school system promises to develop an actual project in time for the seats to materialize in the next 5 years.  This school gets assigned a “placeholder” by the Council since a capacity project is not included in the Board of Education’s recommended FY19 budget.

Scenario 2:

A school has been over 120% capacity since 2011 and is at 151% today.  A plan to address the overcapacity is not included in the Board of Education (BOE) Recommended FY 19-24 budget.  Since there are no pending development projects in this part of the county, no “solution project” is proposed by the County Council, and the area officially goes into a housing moratorium.

Scenario 1 is in Bethesda, scenario 2 is in East Silver Spring.  Neither community is happy with place holders!

I will first explain why the areas with development aren’t happy.  The scenario 1 school, Bethesda ES, is in an area where housing development continues.  In fact, there are an additional 11 buildings submitting applications in the area under a recently approved master plan. Somerset Elementary School is in a similar situation and the Council has proposed a placeholder for that school as well. There is no actual plan for another addition at the Bethesda school (which may not even be possible, given the small site size,) or a plan for a new elementary school nearby. New schools, even at properties MCPS already owns, are much more expensive than additions. Additions also can cost more than the placeholder price tag that is included in the budget. Placeholders are supposed to guarantee seats in 5 years, but the past has shown that projects almost never get done in that time period.  Of the last five placeholders that had a due date before 2018, only one project finished by the due date. Another 4 placeholders added in FY15 were postponed the following year. Continuing development with a placeholder causes schools to go way over capacity, often much more than the initial 120% threshold, by the time there is a real solution.

Now let’s look at Scenario two.  East Silver Spring does not have pending development. The school that is the most overcrowded in the area is Burnt Mills ES, at 151% and over 200 children are in portables. In fact, this school has been over the 120% threshold since 2011, when the feasibility study was done. No project for this school is in the FY2019-2024 CIP. They will be considered in the new renovation and expansion program in a future CIP, but there are limited funds and there are many schools that will be considered. There are no guarantees for this school. So this area is now officially in moratorium, and has been for a while.  Relief at Burnt Mills seems elusive without any project on the books. Parents feel like they do not get the attention that other areas with lots of development get.  They are not wrong. Even though placeholders aren’t solutions, at least the conversation about a possible solution takes place at the County Council.

Seven areas are in housing moratorium in Montgomery County, but only three had placeholders proposed to be added in this budget cycle, two in Bethesda and one in Gaithersburg. I’ve spoken to parents in Bethesda that would rather have a building moratorium take place so the County could take time to come up with a real planned solution. The Gaithersburg school, Judith A. Resnik ES, had an addition project scheduled with a completion date. The enrollment there is trending down slightly, but is still projected to be at 122% capacity within 5 years.  To avoid a moratorium, the County removed an actual project (the scheduled addition), and added a placeholder.

Real money is taken out of the MCPS budget for placeholders, instead of actually using those funds for planned projects. In fact, several projects that were proposed in the BOE Recommended FY19 Budget are slated to be delayed due to lack of funds, including Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School. It is considered a “sick” building by many teachers and parents. Mold and other issues come up regularly. They were elated to have a project that had a completion date of September 2021, only to be deeply disappointed when they were included in the delay list. Placeholder money – used to avoid putting development in moratorium- could be allocated NOW to schools with greater needs than the areas with pending development. Placeholders compete for scarce funds in the CIP.

There is another unintended consequence of giving placeholder money to areas of higher growth. These areas tend to be more affluent. So the optics continues to perpetuate the perceived and the real divide between East County and West County. For instance, there are huge disparities in wealth in our two scenarios. Bethesda ES has a 7.3% Free and Reduced Meals Rate (FARMS.) Burnt Mills ES has 67.1% FARMS.  The affluent area gets the attention of councilmembers and solution/placeholder projects – that may or may not actually come to fruition – while poorer areas are left out. This policy also divides the County North and South too, because rural areas do not have the growth that down county areas receive.

I am in no way blaming Councilmembers or insinuating that they mean to ignore certain areas of the County. I know that many fight for scarce resources, and fight to bring economic growth in underperforming areas of the County. I am blaming the processes and policies that perpetuate inequalities and perception of inequalities in our school system. I propose changing the system.  We can come together as a community and find a better way forward. Let’s get developers, Council Members, the Board of Education, the MCPS Division of Long Range Planning, and the Planning Department together and come up with REAL solutions so we can finally build real classrooms for kids, no matter in which zip code they live.

Laura Stewart is the CIP Chair for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs.

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