Credit: File photo

A group of 13 education and community leaders asked to advise the Rockville City Council on ways to avoid a moratorium on residential development if schools become too crowded has been unable to reach a consensus.

Under existing rules, residential development project applications could be frozen after July 1 because of projected enrollment growth at Richard Montgomery High and Farmland Elementary schools unless the council changes the definition of crowding and allows more students in a school.

The proposal the council is considering would allow schools’ maximum capacity to jump from 120 percent to 150 percent in certain areas of the city. With this proposal, s little less than 3,000 students would be allowed in Richard Montgomery’s 2,218 capacity school before moratorium is triggered.

“That was never a situation the parent community was going to be OK with,” said Jim Bradley, coordinator of the Walter Johnson school cluster, which overlaps an area of Rockville and includes Farmland Elementary. “Overcrowding like this in schools is bad for student’s academic achievement and social and emotional health.”

Some Rockville leaders fear a moratorium would force a developer to pull plans for a Wegman’s grocery in a mixed-use project along Rockville Pike and Halpine Road, the Twinbrook Quarter.

The multimillion-dollar Twinbrook Quarter project includes 11 buildings, including residences and shops.

Advertisement

“Economic development is such a dry phrase, but what it really means is keeping the tax base up, providing jobs, providing homes, providing amenities and opportunities,” said Rockville City Council member Mark Pierzchala, who proposed increasing the school capacity threshold that triggers a building ban. “It’s not just some statistic … it’s all human.”

Some parents are worried that increasing school capacity at Richard Montgomery would negatively impact students’ educational experience and mental health.

Based on school district projections, Richard Montgomery would be placed in moratorium beginning July 1, meaning any residential development application filed after that date would be denied under current standards.
The 2,500-student school is currently at 112 percent of its capacity, according to school system data.

Advertisement

Projections show Richard Montgomery would be 463 students – or 121 percent of capacity — by the 2023-2024 school year, and at 130 percent capacity by 2028.

County Board of Education Vice President Pat O’Neill, who served on the work group, said she opposes Rockville’s proposition to raise its school capacity cap and believes all areas of the county should have the same maximum capacity standards.

“I really believe municipalities and the county need to be using the same numbers, the same processes and the same caps,” O’Neill said. “They all need to be talking to one another because ultimately, the reality is we end up with the kids in these schools and can’t guarantee a solution to the overcrowding because we’re not in charge of our own funding.”

Advertisement

The adequacy of school capacity for all new residential development applications is determined during the development review process.

A test is conducted by adding the number of students generated by a proposed development, students generated by development already approved by the city during the current school year and the projected enrollment determined by the county school system for each school level five years in the future. If the total is more than 120 percent of a school’s capacity, the development application is denied.

Other proposed options to avoid moratorium include providing a waiver of the school capacity test for certain locations.

Advertisement

A public hearing about potential changes to the school enrollment standards is scheduled for Tuesday with possible council action Jan. 28.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com