With little space to build new schools and little chance of a major funding increase for new school projects, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers wants to examine redrawing some school boundaries in Gaithersburg and Rockville.
That could lead to boundary changes for those who live in the Gaithersburg, Thomas S. Wootton and Col. Zadok Magruder high school clusters.
Bowers also hopes to start a “roundtable discussion group” of PTA representatives and school staff to talk about reopening closed schools, constructing a new school or reopening the former Woodward High School in the Walter Johnson High School cluster. The Bethesda school cluster was nearing 120 percent of its capacity earlier this year, which would have put into place a moratorium on all development in the area as required by the county’s growth policy.
Last summer, when the council approved a placeholder classroom addition project to keep the area out of development moratorium, school officials said an actual addition project would likely be included in the next capital budget.
Now, MCPS will consider a promised feasibility study for an addition at Walter Johnson along with other options for solving the cluster’s overcrowding. There are four former elementary schools in the cluster that are being leased out to other entities and that the school system could reclaim.
Tilden Middle School, which now uses the former Woodward High School on Old Georgetown Road, will move to its original site by August 2020, leaving Woodward available.
MCPS Senior Planner Deborah Szyfer said MCPS staff will share the news with Walter Johnson cluster parents at the first feasibility study meeting set for Thursday night.
“There was an expectation that we’d be far enough along to put some capacity in,” said MCPS Director of Long-Range Planning Bruce Crispell. “We won’t have that this fall. The placeholder may have to stay. We’ll have to work that out with the council.”
“We’ll have to continue studying this until we have a final solution,” Szyfer said.
Bowers also recommended a roundtable group for the Gaithersburg, Magruder and Wootton high school clusters in which the possibility of new school boundaries could be a major focus.
That group would look at “the potential reassignment of students” to ease overcrowding in Gaithersburg cluster elementary schools, according to a school system press release announcing the recommendations.
Elementary school enrollment in the Gaithersburg cluster has increased by 737 students since 2007, compared to a 104-student increase in the Magruder cluster and a 217-student decrease in the Wootton cluster.
Wootton is regularly one of the county’s highest-performing schools. Crispell said MCPS knows the idea of new school boundaries can be a controversial subject. On Thursday, school system officials emphasized that any boundary changes would have to come from a formal boundary change study that follows the roundtable group.
“I think it will be a surprise for that cluster,” said Melissa McKenna, who chairs the capital budget committee for the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations (MCCPTA). “But again, this is being driven by the development in Crown Farm and over by Shady Grove. That’s a new thing that hasn’t been affecting that area before, so it’s been pretty quiet in terms of turnover. I think this is really looking at things proactively and trying to address the development and the growth that’s coming.”
If the roundtable group suggests looking at new boundaries and the next superintendent recommends a study, the earliest the Board of Education could approve those new boundaries would be spring 2017.
“We occasionally do have to look more broadly at multiple clusters like this,” Crispell said. “The important thing here is that it’s not a boundary study. It’s a discussion with the community with representatives from each cluster to see what ideas they might have to address Gaithersburg’s capacity deficits.”
Bowers released the recommendations Thursday—about two weeks before he’s expected to release his full recommended six-year capital budget Oct. 28— because the school system wanted to give the public more time to consider what could pave the way for some major changes.
The school system has a record enrollment of more than 156,000 students this school year, up by more than 2,500 students from last school year.
Facing another tough budget year and with a major increase in school construction funding appearing unlikely, school officials are looking at solutions other than building new schools and having to hire additional staff for those schools.
School officials said they also face a challenge when it comes to existing schools that have little room for more space.
Other recommendations from Bowers include addition projects at four Downcounty Consortium elementary schools: Montgomery Knolls, Pine Crest, East Silver Spring and Woodlin. Those additions would be completed by August 2020, if the money is approved in the county’s final six-year capital budget to be approved by the County Council in spring 2016.
“That’s one of the areas where we have the most growth. There’s not a lot of space to expand and the population is growing a lot,” said MCCPTA President Frances Frost. “I think there’s still going to need to be work that’s done in the [Downcounty Consortium] but I think this is a good start.”
Students from areas now assigned to Rachel Carson Elementary School in Gaithersburg, which has more than 1,000 students in a building with a capacity of 667 students, could be reassigned to nearby DuFief Elementary School, which would undergo an expansion project.
The county’s Board of Education will hold a work session Nov. 5 on the recommendations and the rest of the proposed capital budget. Public hearings on the recommendations are set for Nov. 9 and 12. The board is set to approve a capital budget Nov. 16 to send to County Executive Ike Leggett.