County Council Looks To Avert Bethesda Building Moratorium Due to School Crowding

Members add money to capital plan for projects at Bethesda Elementary, Somerset Elementary


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Construction in Bethesda

Photo via StonebridgeCarras

County Council members are looking to earmark more than $6 million to build additional capacity at Bethesda Elementary and Somerset Elementary in Chevy Chase, two schools brimming with students.

Officials wouldn’t spend the money right away, since they don’t yet know how they’ll address space shortages at the two schools; instead, the capital items would act as “placeholders” for projects that have yet to be planned. Still, if approved, the funding would have at least one immediate effect: Preventing a development moratorium from stalling residential projects across downtown Bethesda.

“Obviously [a moratorium] would work against our community’s economic development goals and affordable housing goals. It would undermine the well-being of the entire county,” council President Hans Riemer said in a Tuesday interview.

On the other hand, Lyric Winik, a parent advocate in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School cluster, said she’s worried that school capacity projects might lag behind the new housing construction.

“It’s going to put a tremendous amount of pressure on this cluster and its schools,” she said.

While Montgomery County Public Schools hasn’t yet crafted a solution for crowding in Bethesda’s elementary schools, it does intend to get the ball rolling this summer with a capacity study for the area, a county legislative analyst reported. The school system should be able to complete the yet-unspecified project inside the six-year lifespan of the capital improvements plan, and with that in mind, the analyst wrote that county officials can justify adding “placeholder” funds to the proposal.

The county’s growth policies include a development moratorium provision to keep housing construction from overwhelming local schools. The mechanism is triggered by the annual schools test, which takes effect each July and evaluates projected student enrollment and available classroom space. Service areas go into moratorium for housing construction—since that’s the type that generates students—if a school’s enrollment is expected to exceed 120 percent of its capacity within the next five years. The analysis considers the addition and expansion projects that are scheduled for completion within that period of time.

The council historically has included placeholder projects in the capital improvements program to keep the moratorium at bay, and Riemer said he has “complete confidence” that a solution to the Bethesda school crowding will be in place before six years elapse.

A freeze on residential development around Bethesda Elementary could create setbacks for a number of projects in the rapidly transforming area. The moratorium would blanket downtown Bethesda, falling across the sites of proposed apartment communities such as ZOM Bethesda and Artena Bethesda and over the Bethesda Metro Center Plaza, where a developer is thinking of building new housing. The EagleBank and 7-Eleven properties, a professional office building on Auburn Avenue and La Madeleine in downtown Bethesda are also the subject of initial proposals for residential development, all within the attendance area for Bethesda elementary.

Council members are looking to avoid a building moratorium in the attendance area for Bethesda Elementary School (click to expand). Credit: Montgomery County Public Schools.

A county planner said there aren’t currently any major development projects in the pipeline in the Somerset Elementary attendance area.

During a recent education committee meeting, council members agreed to include $3.695 million for a six-classroom addition at Bethesda Elementary and $2.691 million for a four-classroom addition to Somerset Elementary. But, in reality, the school system will look at a range of options for adding capacity, such as reopening Lynbrook Elementary School in east Bethesda or changing attendance boundaries. Once MCPS settles on a specific solution, the placeholder funds could be dedicated for this purpose.  

Council member Marc Elrich during the recent committee meeting questioned the fairness of allotting money to address crowding at the two elementary schools. 

“Don’t we have other schools in this queue that are crowded? Why is this more special than anybody else who’s been waiting 10 or 15 years for a project?” he asked.

In response, Riemer noted that the two schools are already over capacity—Bethesda Elementary is at about 107 percent, and Somerset Elementary is at about 116 percent.

“The thing is, the schools are overcrowded without the new development. So doing nothing is not an option, and we need to move aggressively to expand school capacity in that part of the county with or without new development,” he said Tuesday.

Bethesda Elementary is on course to be at 125 percent of its capacity by the 2023-2024 school year, while Somerset Elementary is on the way to operating at 127 percent of its capacity, county planners and MCPS staff estimate.

Somerset Elementary has moved its music room to the computer lab and given up the teacher lounge for more classrooms in an effort to work within space constraints , says Inga Barry, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association.

“Unfortunately, we have few options left to accommodate the additional students that are expected to come our way, and this is a major concern for our community,” Barry said in testimony delivered last month to county school board.

The council’s education committee chose not to include CIP projects that would deter a moratorium in a number of other communities. Council staff said the service areas for Ashburton Elementary and Stonegate Elementary are on track to go into moratorium July 1, and the areas for Burnt Mills Elementary, Highland View Elementary, Lake Seneca Elementary, Rosemont Elementary, Strawberry Knoll Elementary and Summit Hall Elementary will remain in moratorium.

The full council will consider the placeholder projects in coming weeks, and Riemer said he expects the funding will be approved.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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