2015 | Schools

Interim Superintendent Asks for $1.72 Billion to Ease Overcrowding in Growing County School System

Larry Bowers revealed his recommended capital budget for the next six years, which includes expansion projects and plan to equip all high schools with turf fields

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MCPS Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers (right) pictured in May

Aaron Kraut

Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers on Wednesday said Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) needs $172 million more in its next capital budget than in its current one to accommodate a school system that’s grown by almost 19,000 students since 2007.

In that same time period, MCPS says it has added more than 14,000 seats in new school buildings, additions and school modernizations, mostly in elementary schools.

But as those elementary school students make their way to middle and high schools, and as the school system continues to grow by about 2,500 students a year, MCPS officials say they continue to fall further and further behind. Bower said that if approved as proposed, his capital budget would add about 12,000 seats.

Bowers is calling for a total of $1.72 billion over the next six fiscal years (starting July 1) to keep already planned projects on track, add 10 new classroom addition projects to the budget and to add a new elementary school in the Clarksburg cluster.

Part of that request is $11 million over the next six years to help fund artificial turf playing fields for the 19 MCPS schools that don’t have one.

Two weeks ago, the school system announced it would be setting up a committee to examine the possibility of boundary changes in the Thomas S. Wootton, Gaithersburg and Col. Zadok Magruder high school clusters to solve overcrowding.

That announcement also included news that an addition promised for Walter Johnson High School has been put off. Instead, a committee will examine reopening the old Woodward High School in a broader discussion about what to do to solve overcrowding in the Bethesda school cluster.

All of the construction projects recommended by Bowers will depend on county and state funding. County leaders have been unsuccessful in the past few years getting the desired amount of school construction money from the state.

For just the projects proposed for the fiscal year that starts July 1 and runs to June 30, 2017, his recommended construction budget would require $155.62 million in state aid.

The entire six-year plan would also require the backing of County Executive Ike Leggett, who will make his recommendations for all county construction spending in mid-January. The County Council will approve the county’s final capital budget in late May.

Here’s a closer look at specific projects proposed for the Bethesda area:

Potential good news for parents at Ashburton Elementary School

Bowers recommended moving up the addition project planned for this overcrowded Bethesda elementary school by a year, so that the project is finished by August 2019 instead of August 2020.

The school, on Lone Oak Drive near Old Georgetown Road, has 918 students and a capacity of 629 students with eight portable classrooms. Making matters more pressing is the 330-home development planned for the WMAL radio towers site and any residential development that happens in the Rock Spring office park.

Elementary students who live in those new projects would be assigned to Ashburton.

Moving up the addition is far from a done deal. As is the case with all of the projects, it depends on county and state funding.

Architectural studies for additions at Walt Whitman High School, Pyle Middle School would start next year

Bowers recommended money in fiscal year 2017 to help plan the architectural design of an addition project for Walt Whitman High School, which now has 1,978 students in a building with the capacity of 1,891.

The school’s enrollment is expected to surpass 2,000 next school year and feasibility studies have already begun to determine how to expand the school at the next-door site that contains the former Whittier Woods Elementary School.

If approved, the completion date for the addition project would be August 2020.

At nearby Pyle Middle School, which at 1,516 students is bigger than a handful of county high schools, Bowers also recommended funds next fiscal year for an architectural study of a much-needed addition project and improvements to the building’s core. The completion date is also August 2020.

An addition for Burning Tree Elementary School is now off the books

Planning for an addition to Burning Tree Elementary School near River Road and Wilson Lane started a few years ago. But with current enrollment projections putting the school at 51 students over capacity by 2021, Bowers recommended against funding the actual addition.

Bowers recommended additions for elementary schools that were projected to be 92 students over capacity by 2021, meaning Burning Tree won’t be overcrowded enough to be included, unless the enrollment trends change.

The boundary study for Bethesda-Chevy Chase Middle School #2 should be finished in November 2016

The yet-to-be-named new middle school coming in August 2017 to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School cluster will ease overcrowding at Westland Middle School at Massachusetts Avenue.

While some in the neighborhood around the Kensington site for the new school have fought the plans, Bowers made it clear why the project is so important to the area’s capacity numbers.

Besides easing overcrowding at Westland, the new school will give sixth-graders now at Chevy Chase and North Chevy Chase elementary schools a middle school to attend. MCPS middle schools traditionally teach students in grades six to eight, while elementary schools teach students in kindergarten through grade five.

The boundary study for the new school will start in January and the new boundaries are expected to be approved by the Board of Education in November 2016.

Bowers wants artificial turf fields at all MCPS high schools

One of the new countywide initiatives Bowers recommended was to put an artificial turf playing field at all county high schools. Six MCPS high schools have turf fields, including Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda and Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville.

“MCPS school fields are constantly used by schools and the community and the artificial turf will provide safe playing conditions for all participants in sporting activities,” Bowers said.

He’s recommending $2.5 million toward the program in fiscal year 2017 and $11 million total over the next six years. But it’s his hope that schools will partner with private organizations to help fund the entire cost of the fields.

It’s likely those partnerships would look like the one that brought a turf field to Wootton. A local youth soccer league, the school’s booster club and MCPS pitched in for that school’s $1 million turf field now used for soccer, football and other field sports.

The recommendations don’t detail what kind of artificial turf fields schools will pursue. Safety concerns about the chemicals in crumb rubber, which fill traditional turf fields, inspired the County Council to pass a resolution earlier this year pushing for organic turf fields only.