Bethesda Community Advocates, Parents Critique ‘Placeholder’ Projects for Local Schools

Bethesda Community Advocates, Parents Critique ‘Placeholder’ Projects for Local Schools

County Council uses funds to prevent housing development from stalling in areas with crowded classrooms

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Bethesda Elementary School

VIA MONTGOMERY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Bethesda community groups are challenging the county’s use of two so-called “placeholder” school expansion projects to prevent development moratoriums in areas suffering from classroom space shortages.

Their concerns relate to the County Council’s decision to set aside more than $6 million to relieve crowding at Bethesda Elementary and Somerset Elementary in Chevy Chase, even though the school system doesn’t yet have specific projects planned. While the new classrooms could be years away from materializing, the immediate effect would be to avert a halt in development activity across downtown Bethesda, an area on the brink of a construction boom.  

But parents and community advocates have spoken up to oppose these two placeholder projects, which they argue benefit developers without serving students.

“The elementary schools that serve downtown Bethesda have no more room to grow and the solutions suggested in the placeholders are not necessarily feasible, nor do they cover the full cost that may be required. They may signal intent but they do not provide classrooms,” the Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents wrote in a letter to council members earlier this month.

The funds—$3.695 million for additional space at Bethesda Elementary and $2.691 million for space at Somerset Elementary—are included in the six-year plan for Montgomery County capital projects. County officials have said that even though there’s no definite proposal for addressing student crowding in these places, the school system should be able to complete the yet-unspecified projects inside the six-year lifespan of the capital improvements plan. The placeholder funds can be put toward the cost of the improvements once  the plans have been formulated, officials have said. Glenn Orlin, the council’s deputy director, described the designated money as a “down payment” on the projects.

Officials with Montgomery County Public Schools plan to start studying capacity problems in the Bethesda area this summer. The solution could involve opening a new school, changing attendance boundaries or other options, Orlin has said.  

The county’s growth policies include a development moratorium provision to keep housing construction from overwhelming local schools. The mechanism is triggered if a school’s enrollment is expected to exceed 120 percent of its capacity within the next five years. The county’s analysis considers the additions and expansions that are scheduled for completion in that period of time, and the council historically has used placeholder projects to keep the moratorium at bay.

Council members have created a placeholder project to pervent a building moratorium in the attendance area for Bethesda Elementary School (click to expand). Credit: Montgomery County Public Schools.

Orlin wrote earlier this month in a post on the Seventh State blog that the council has been using placeholder funds for about eight years. Even though officials don't know at the outset what upgrades this money will cover, the added school capacity is provided within five years in almost every case; the only exception is when the schools in question no longer need the space because enrollment doesn’t increase as originally projected, he wrote.

However, CBAR and others contend that by allowing housing development to get ahead of these school capacity projects, the placeholder approach is a recipe for classroom overcrowding. The group questions the accuracy of projected enrollment growth and says new construction will bring more families—and students—to Bethesda and Chevy Chase more quickly than these estimates show.

Parents in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Cluster have counted 11 new proposed residential projects in the downtown Bethesda area since the 2017 approval of the Bethesda Downtown Sector Plan.

“[W]e have serious concerns that these so-called ‘solution projects’ will not in fact come to fruition in time to avert a serious capacity crisis in the B-CC cluster,” the parents wrote in a May 15 letter to the council.

Furthermore, tying up precious capital funds in projects that don’t yet exist takes them away from sorely needed improvements elsewhere, the coalition members argue.

“[W]e have learned that multiple schools in Montgomery County pose conditions that are unsafe or unhealthy for students, teachers and staff. CBAR respectfully suggests that the council’s priority in schools should be to remediate existing hazards to students and staff,” the letter states.

Orlin earlier this month told the council that the placeholder projects—also called “solution projects”—don’t siphon funding away from other school system priorities.

“If there were no solution projects, these funds would fall into the undesignated reserve. They do not compete with anything else in the CIP (capital improvements program),” Orlin said.

The reassurance did not seem to set council member Marc Elrich’s mind at ease about the funding for Bethesda Elementary and Somerset Elementary.

“I have real heartburn with this because there is no guarantee, given the needs of the school system, that this rises to the level of the next project they would recommend. It’s not clear to me that the PTAs would say, given all the needs in the county, this is the next project we should do,” he said during a council session.

Orlin said funding for placeholder projects comes from a reserve within the capital improvements program. In the current six-year plan, about $14.3 million was set aside for four school capacity projects necessary to prevent development moratoriums. If the money hadn’t been marked for that purpose, it still would have remained in the reserve—which totals $181.3 million over the six years—and wouldn’t have been available to fund other school system priorities, Orlin explained.

On Thursday, the council gave formal approval to the fiscal 2019 to 2024 capital improvements program, including funding for Bethesda Elementary and Somerset Elementary. But Katya Marin, an East Bethesda resident, said CBAR hopes to make placeholder projects an election issue for candidates pursuing a county office.

CBAR also suggested forming a task force or committee of community members, developers, government leaders and school officials to discuss residential growth and student enrollment. Parents within the B-CC cluster asked council members to consider quarterly or semiannual reviews of development and student population growth.

“We feel that the normal CIP cycle is not agile enough to keep pace with the rapidly changing circumstance in Bethesda,” the parents wrote in their letter. 

CBAR Comments on School Placeholders in the FY19 CIP (2) by Bethany on Scribd

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

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