A planned project to expand and renovate a rundown middle school in Silver Spring is at risk of a one-year delay as County Council members look for reductions in their lineup of capital improvements.
The proposal would push the completion of upgrades at Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School to September 2022, shifting back the bulk of the $57.9 million project’s cost. But some parents and council members say it’s unacceptable to put off construction funding for a building with such pressing needs.
At a meeting last week on the six-year capital improvements plan, council member Nancy Navarro said she’d found buckling floors, crumbling tiling and air quality issues during a recent visit to Lee.
“This is beyond, beyond anything I ever imagined that we would still have in Montgomery County,” Navarro said, her voice later breaking with emotion. “I don’t think I’ve ever almost cried on a dais. But it’s not right.”
The school board in December recommended accelerating the Lee renovations, previously scheduled to be finished in 2024. School district officials had hoped to expedite the work for a 2021 completion, recognizing the “urgent need to address facility conditions” at the 50-year-old building, Andrew Zuckerman, chief operating officer for Montgomery County Public Schools, wrote in a letter to parents.
He said he understood many families are disappointed they might not get a fully refurbished school until 2022, but he said this date is still an improvement upon the original timeline.
With its current classroom space for 727 students, the school is projected to be at 137 percent of its capacity during the 2021-2022 academic year.
During her comments, Navarro noted that Lee serves many families who are immigrants or living in poverty. Nearly two-thirds of students at Lee qualify to receive free or reduced-price meals, according to MCPS data.
Navarro said many of these parents are reluctant or unable to raise an outcry about the conditions at the school.
As a result, the Lee community is particularly vulnerable when officials look to minimize costs, said David Watts, who heads the school’s parent-teacher association.
“I think there’s a general feeling by, I’m not sure if it’s the council … or just specifically the Board of Education and the school system administration, that this is a community that won’t speak up and demand its place,” Watts said.
After an hour-long discussion last week, council members directed staff to look for alternatives to delaying the Lee project. However, a legislative analyst said there won’t be a painless solution.
“I guarantee you it’s going to be ugly,” Glenn Orlin, the County Council's deputy director, said.
The council is searching for ways to contain costs in the drafted capital improvements plan for fiscal 2019 through 2024 and is looking at delaying, eliminating or only partially funding requested projects for schools, transportation networks and government facilities.
At the council’s direction, MCPS prepared a list of potential cuts to the school board’s proposed project lineup. Education officials stressed in a letter that they were not in favor of the reductions—totaling $86.86 million over the six years—and urged the council members to look for other ways of adjusting the drafted capital plan.
“Delays to the projects … will be a great disappointment to our school communities. All of the capital projects are essential in order to provide quality educational facilities for all MCPS students,” Superintendent Jack Smith wrote to the council.
In addition to delaying upgrades at Lee, the listed reductions would also set back by one year projects for a new elementary school in the Clarksburg cluster and a new high school in Gaithersburg. Additions at Cresthaven, DuFief, Ronald McNair and Roscoe R. Nix elementary schools and an addition at Parkland Middle School would also be delayed. The list also includes potential cuts to funding for maintenance and replacement projects across the school system and for acquiring land.
However, the listed reductions leave in place money in fiscal 2019 for designing the Lee project. Orlin said that means next year, if there’s some budgetary wiggle-room, officials could undo the delay and put the Lee renovations back on track for a 2021 completion.
But Francisco Negron, who coordinates the parent-teacher associations in the Kennedy cluster, said there’s no guarantee of a reversal.
If officials do have “that large degree of optimism … then why not include [the money] in the budget now?” he said.
Negron said he spotted peeling paint, mold in the ceilings and broken tiles when he recently stopped by the building. Watts said his eighth-grade daughter’s chief complaint is about the lack of air-conditioning in some parts of the school.
“She says, ‘Dad, you go in one classroom and it’s freezing, and you go in another and it’s burning up hot.’ She says it makes it very, very difficult for students to concentrate,” Watts said.
During last week’s meeting, council members tabled the issue until May 17, when Orlin will present alternatives to delaying the Lee project.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.