Believe it or not, the surge of apartment construction in Bethesda, White Flint and other areas isn’t why most local school buildings are overcapacity or nearing it.
Many who attended the “Infrastructure Forum” Saturday at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School don’t believe it, and at the very least would like to see stricter limits on development as Montgomery County’s school system grapples with recent increases of about 2,500 students a year.
It’s one of the reasons Councilmember Roger Berliner said he brought together residents, other Council members, the chief planner for MCPS, and Planning Department officials for the day-long event.
“We want to make sure everybody at least has a common set of facts from which to work,” Berliner said. “We do have problems, but it’s important to make sure that everybody understands the source of them.”
MCPS long range planner Bruce Crispell brought results from a survey of 3,553 apartment and condo units in downtown Bethesda. Using MCPS student addresses, he found 91 elementary school students, 35 middle school students and 60 high school students in those buildings, a much lower student generation rate than in established single-family neighborhoods.
MCPS uses those rates to project how many students might be at a school in the future, which in turn influences budgeting for school additions, modernizations and new school construction.
The numbers are also often contested by school system parents who see the construction cranes in downtown Bethesda and fear the added density either in the pipeline or proposed for White Flint, Westbard and Chevy Chase Lake.
“All I’ve got is the anecdotal data where I see lots of kids in apartment buildings,” complained one parent who lives near the Grosvenor Metro station.
More than 500 new apartment units are destined for the Metro station’s surface parking lot, with construction set to start in 2019.
But the event’s focus was school overcrowding and many in attendance were PTA members.
Berliner and Chief of Staff Cindy Gibson started meeting last year with a group of concerned PTA representatives from the Walter Johnson High School cluster. Berliner said Saturday’s forum stemmed from those meetings, where people said they fear how redevelopment in White Flint might add to their school capacity issues.
Many of the dozens of pre-prepared questions from attendees shared a common theme: Why won’t the county simply limit additional residential development, or make developers pay for the costs their development puts on the school system.
“There are a number of other factors other than housing development that far outweigh the new growth,” interim MCPS Superintendent Larry Bowers said. “Tightening the growth policy may not be the most effective way to approach this.”
According to Crispell, the main factor is turnover in single-family home neighborhoods, which happens because older empty nesters move out and younger families with school-aged children move in.
Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson said the county already requires developers in crowded school clusters to pay 1.5 times the capital cost of the new school seats they’re generating. Sixteen of the county’s 25 high school clusters are above 105 percent capacity, meaning any development approvals in those areas require extra school facility payments.
County law imposes a building moratorium in school clusters over 120 percent capacity. No clusters are in moratorium now.
“A lot of people push back, but new construction is more than paying for its share of new school construction,” Anderson said.
While county and school officials agreed about where the bulk of the students are coming from, solutions for fixing the problem brought up some underlying friction.
“We have a problem right now without any growth,” Board of Education President Patricia O’Neill said.
O’Neill, a Bethesda resident, has said she’s concerned about how proposed residential development in Westbard might impact the already overcrowded Walt Whitman High School cluster.
“We need more money,” said O’Neill, who recently criticized the County Council for considering renovations to its building in Rockville when funding for school construction is on the table in Annapolis.
The afternoon portion of the forum included three speakers from outside the county, one the director of planning for the City of Alexandria and another an architect at a D.C.-based firm specializing in urban school design.
Alexandria Director of Planning and Zoning Karl Moritz presented plans for an 0.8-acre elementary school with 34 classrooms in the city’s Potomac Yard development.
Some school officials in the audience seemed unhappy with the idea of comparing Montgomery County schools with Alexandria’s much smaller system.
Architect Sean O’Donnell said most school districts around the country are using an outdated standard that requires elementary school sites be at least 12 acres, middle school sites be at least 20 acres and high school sites be at least 30 acres.
He also showed off the new Dunbar High School in D.C., built on 8.5 acres and up to five stories. MCPS strives for 7.5 acres at a minimum — for new elementary schools.
High school sites are expected to be at least 35 acres to accommodate the school structure, but also playing fields, parking lots and bus drop-off areas.
O’Donnell showed examples of schools collocated in empty commercial warehouses and office buildings.
“One of the challenges with a lot of those very fine architectural examples are concerns from parents about having their school-age children next door or below adults,” Crispell said when Berliner asked for his thoughts about the presentation.
That response got a few claps from the audience.
“I don’t know how you move a community toward that,” Crispell said. “I don’t know if it’s even the right thing to move toward.”
“I think they’re going to be forced in that direction,” Berliner said during a break in the event. “We just want to create a context so that we’re collectively taking responsibility for doing things differently, so nobody feels like they’re being hung out. We’re not going to get to where we need to get to if we keep doing the things that we’ve been doing and do them again.”
Participants finished the forum with small group discussions about possible solutions. It’s a discussion that could be part of the Planning Department’s update to Montgomery County’s Subdivision Staging Policy — formerly known as the “Growth Policy.”
Work on that is set to start this summer with Council review and approval by November 2016.
“Those are all kinds of things that people need to start getting comfortable with,” Berliner said. “And you can’t start getting comfortable with it unless you start talking about it.”
PDFs of documents provided to forum attendees: