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.)
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.
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.